Why progressive values align more closely with our basic needs

Thomas Fazi and I have been discussing the shape of our next book and I think it will be an interesting and worthwhile followup to Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, 2017). We hope it will be published some time late in 2019. One of the angles that will be delved into is the way in which neoliberal narratives and constructs have permeated individual consciousness. Yes, sounds a bit psychological doesn’t it. But there is a strong literature going back to well before the recent period of neoliberalism that allows us to draw some fairly strong conclusions on how the process has worked. It also allows us to make some coherent statements about the dis-junctures that are going on across the world between the people and their polities, which have spawned the support for Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the popularity of far-right movements, the electoral demolition of the traditional social democratic political parties, the election of the new Italian government, and the on-going trouble that the Gilets Jaunes are causing the mainstream political processes in France (and Brussels). The literature also provides a guide as to how the Left might break out of their current malaise based on their tepid yearning for cosmopolitanism, identity and their fear of financial markets to reestablish themselves as the progressive voice of the people. That is what I am writing about at present and here is a snippet.

Here is previous blog post on this topic – Humans are intrinsically anti neo-liberal (May 22, 2017).

I have long considered that traditional Left-wing values align much more closely with what we, as humans, want as basic outcomes for our lives, than the competitive, individualistic norms encouraged by neoliberalism.

When I was a student (particularly at postgraduate level) and studying the works of Marx in depth, I was continually confronted with the claim that socialism is against human nature, which apparently is competitive and dog-eat-dog in form.

I was told that people are intrinsically selfish and evolutionary biology tells us that.

In a New York Times article (May 12, 1998) – Scientist at Work: Edward O. Wilson; From Ants to Ethics: A Biologist Dreams Of Unity of Knowledge – journalist Nicholas Wade wrote:

Karl Marx, Dr. Wilson once joked when talking about ants, was correct: he just applied his theory to the wrong species.

He was referring to the work of American biologist, Edward O. Wilson who thought that humans were intrinsically unsuited for a sharing-type of collective society.

The concept of the ‘selfish gene’ (a la Richard Dawkins) was pushed to negate the view that altruism in groups was possible and hence neoliberalism was some sort of ‘natural’ order aligned with our intrinsic nature..

Commenting on the path-breaking article in Nature (The evolution of eusociality (August 26, 2010)), E.O. Wilson told the UK Guardian in 2010 that in relation to the “concept of a selfish gene” (Source):

I have abandoned it and I think most serious scientists working on it have abandoned it …

The Nature article (you can access it it HERE), dramatically revised what biologists thought was accepted doctrine on ‘kin selection’.

In terms of the application to human society, E.O. Wilson said during an interview with the Discover Magazine – E.O. Wilson’s Theory of Altruism Shakes Up Understanding of Evolution (April 28, 2011) that:

In human terms, family is not so important after all; altruism emerges to protect social groups whether they are kin or not. When people compete against each other they are selfish, but when group selection becomes important, then the altruism characteristic of human societies kicks in …

Group altruism dominates over selfishness because it ensures the survival of the group, while the latter is an inferior strategy in this regard.

The point is that I never considered the ‘selfish gene’ view to be evidence-based given what I had read, at the time, in the psychology, sociology and anthropology literature.

That sort of literature has, of course, expanded dramatically in the intervening decades and I have been catching up on it as we draft the new manuscript.

Intrinsic motivation and external reward

The relevant concepts that I think bear on this line of enquiry relate to the two types of motivation that psychologists distinguish between based on the rewards that are forthcoming: extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation.

In 1971, Edward L. Deci published a path-breaking article – Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation – (in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 18(1), pp. 105-115), asked the question (p.105):

If a boy who enjoys mowing lawns begins to receive payment for the task, what will happen to his intrinsic motivation for performing this activity?

Edward Deci wrote that (p.105):

One is said to be intrinsically motivated to perform an activity when he receives no ap- parent rewards except the activity itself. This intrinsic motivation might be either innate or learned

The study sought to “the effects of external rewards on this motivation … Will his intrinsic motivation for the activity decrease, increase, or remain the same?”

Up until that time (1971), it was concluded “that external rewards decrease intrinsic motivation” but the literature was far from definitive on the matter.

On the one hand, when an extrinsic reward is offered “the locus of control or the knowledge or feeling of personal causation shifts to an external source, leading him to become ‘a pawn’ to the source of external rewards”.

Extrinsic rewards “affect the person’s concept of why he is working and his attitude toward the work”.

Note: I apologise for the male-language his, he etc but the literature was published prior to 1971.

There was also a strand of literature that indicated “that insufficient external rewards will lead to enhanced intrinsic motivation”.

We will see that this is important in helping us understand the growing rebellion against neoliberalism.

Other studies had found that when an external reward was introduced, the intrinsic motivation declines but then increases when the reward is reduced – an “enhancement” effect.

After a series of experiments (I cannot link to the article because it is behind the library subscription paywall), Edward Deci concluded:

1. “when money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic motivation for the activity.”

2. But “that when verbal reinforcement and positive feedback are used as the external rewards, the subjects’ intrinsic motivation seems to increase relative to the non-rewarded subjects”.

3. “money may work to “buy off” one’s intrinsic motivation for an activity. And this decreased motivation appears (from the results of the field experiment) to be more than just a temporary phenomenon.”

4. “rewards such as social approval do not seem to affect a person’s phenomenology in the same way.”

This was the first study to really state that “extrinsic rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation”.

A later meta analysis published by the Psychological Bulletin in 1999 by Edward Deci and co-authors, of the intervening research since Deci had published his ground-breaking article in 1971, examined 128 extant studies of “the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation”.

They found:

1. “the undermining of intrinsic motivation by tangible rewards is indeed a significant issue”.

2. “verbal rewards tended to enhance intrinsic motivation … expected tangible rewards did significantly and substantially undermine intrinsic motivation …”

[Reference: Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., and Ryan, R. M. (1999) ‘A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation’, Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0033-2909.125.6.627]

This research informed the development of – Self-determination theory – which really began with Edward Deci’s 1971 study.

[Reference: Ryan, R. M. and Deci, E. L. (2000) ‘Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being’, American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0003-066X.55.1.68]

Self-determination theory (SDT) considers that (p.68):

The fullest representations of humanity show people to be curious, vital, and self-motivated. At their best, they are agentic and inspired, striving to learn; extend themselves; master new skills; and apply their talents responsibly. That most people show considerable effort, agency, and commitment in their lives appears, in fact, to be more normative than exceptional, suggesting some very positive and persistent features of human nature.

But, “it is also clear that the human spirit can be diminished or crushed and that individuals sometimes reject growth and responsibility” (p.68).

SDT “is an approach to human motivation and personality … that highlights the importance of humans’ evolved inner resources for personality development and behavioural self-regulation” (p.68).

It relates to (p.68):

… people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs that are the basis for their self-motivation and personality integration, as well as for the conditions that foster those positive processes …

we have identified three such needs – the needs for competence … relatedness … and autonomy … that appear to be essential for facilitating optimal functioning of the natural propensities for growth and integration, as well as for constructive social development and personal well-being.

These needs are nurtured or frustrated within the social environment and as we move further away from self-determined states where intrinsic motivation is based on inherent satisfaction, interest, to non-self-determined states, extrinsic motivation with external rewards and punishments begin to dominate behaviour and intrinsic motivation drops.

You can guess where this is leading.

In brief, these basic needs are:

“Competence”, according to Robert White’s 1959 study relates “to an organism’s capacity to interact effectively with its environment” (p. 297).

Earlier notions of “basic instinct” as motivating “exploratory behavior, manipulation, and general activity” are found to be wanting (p. 328).

Instead, Robert White says that humans are motivated to produce “a feeling of efficacy” (p.329) and the desire to achieve mastery.

[Reference: White, R.W. (1959) ‘Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence’, Psychological Review, 66(5), 297-333. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1961-04411-001]

“Relatedness” is about the “need to belong” and to form interpersonal attachments” which Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary described in their 1995 article.

[Reference: Baumeister, R.F. and Leary, M.R. (1995) ‘The Need to Belong – Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human-Motivation’. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529. Baumeister, RF and Leary, MR ]

The “need to belong” is a “fundamental human motivation” and requires that we have (p.497):

… frequent, affectively pleasant interactions with a few other people, and … these interactions must take place in the context of temporally stable and enduring framework of affective concern for each others’ welfare …

This is much more than the “No [person] is an island” epithet (p.497).

Baumeister and Leary argue (p.498) that the “belongingness hypothesis might help psychology recover from the challenge posed by cultural materialism”:

Cultural materialism … is based on the assumption that human culture is shaped primarily by economic needs and opportunities, and so historical, anthropological, sociologicial, and other cultural patterns should mainly be analyzed with reference to economic causes … belongingness … would suggest that human culture is … adapted to enable people to satisfy the psychological need to live together …

Finally, “Autonomy” is discussed in Edward Deci and Martin Vansteenkiste’s 2004 article on positive psychology.

[Reference: Deci, E.L. and Vansteenkiste, M. (2004) ‘Self-determination theory and basic need satisfaction: Understanding human development in positive psychology’, Ricerche di Psicologia, 27(1), 23-40 . http://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2004_DeciVansteenkiste_SDTandBasicNeedSatisfaction.pdf]

The authors argued that while “activity and optimal development are inherent to the human organism, these do not happen automatically. For people to actualize their inherent nature and potentials … they require nutriments from the social environment” (p.24).

The need for autonomy (p.25):

… concerns people’s universal urge to be causal agents, to experience volition, to act in accord with their integrated sense of self … and to endorse their actions at the highest level of reflective capacity … To be autonomous does not mean to be independent of others, but rather it means to feel a sense of willingness and choice when acting …

We can bring the ideas of intrinsic motivation and self-determination together in a straightforward manner.

Where an external reward undermines the sense of autonomy, intrinsic motivation declines.

Where external rewards appear as “instruments of social control, they can leave people feeling like pawns to the rewards … [which] … thwarts the people’s need for autonomy” (p.27).

The research strongly suggests that (pp.34-35):

autonomy-supportive interpersonal climates and environments focused on the attainment of intrinsic goal pursuits are likely to yield optimal development, presumably because they promote basic need satisfaction. In contrast, controlling contexts and extrinsic goals have been found to result in passivity and impaired performance because such contexts and goals tend to thwart basic need satisfaction.


When I started studying economics I was told by professors that neoclassical principles apply universally irrespective of culture, language etc.

And I witnessed as I was developing as an academic, IMF missions flying into nations (such as Korea) on a Friday afternoon, barricading themselves up in expensive hotels in the city centre, cursorily pouring over documents brought to them by government technocrats, eating and drinking lavishly in between, flying out Sunday and then …

Publishing a shock-doctrine report on what the government needs to do to solve their problems – privatisation, austerity etc.

The time spent over the weekend must have been the time they took to search and replace ‘Nation X’ for ‘Nation Y’ in the standardised report they would pump out at the end of such visits.

This is universality in action – an absence of context, history, culture etc.

But the conception of personal motivation in the work of Edward Deci and his colleagues over the years is in stark contrast to the construction of human behaviour in standard economics textbooks, which reflects what we now think of as the neoliberal ideal.

The neoliberal era has elevated the idea the individuals are rational, selfish beings who seek personal goals independent of their environment and social groups as a result of external incentives (rewards and punishments).

The pyschology literature, as noted above, sees humanity caught in a bind – between the intrinsic needs and motivations and the external rewards that work, in many cases, to undermine these basic needs.

Behavioural studies reinforce our reciprocating nature and our desire to find cooperative solutions when available. Trust and belongingness are complex motivations that defy the simple idea that we want external financial rewards before we will act.

In the 2005 edited book – Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life (MIT Press) by Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles and Ernst Fehr, the Chapter by Elinor Ostrom – Policies That Crowd out Reciprocity and Collective Action – argues that (p.260):

1. External interventions crowd out intrinsic motivation if the individuals affected perceive them to be controlling. In this case, both self determination and self-esteem suffer, and the individuals react by reducing their intrinsic motivation in the activity controlled.

2. External interventions crowd in intrinsic motivation if the individuals affected perceive them to be supportive. In this case, self-esteem is fostered, and individuals feel that they are given more freedom to act, thus enlarging self-determination (emphasis in original)

In other words, economic policies that assume we are only motivated by external financial reward are likely to elicit the first response rather than the second.

US academic David Kotz wrote in 2002 that:

Neoliberal theory claims that a largely unregulated capitalist system (a “free market economy”) not only embodies the ideal of free individual choice but also achieves optimum economic performance with respect to efficiency, economic growth, technical progress, and distributional justice. The state is assigned a very limited economic role: defining property rights, enforcing contracts, and regulating the money supply.1 State intervention to correct market failures is viewed with suspicion, on the ground that such intervention is likely to create more problems than it solves.

The policy recommendations of neoliberalism are concerned mainly with dismantling what remains of the regulationist welfare state. These recommendations include deregulation of business; privatization of public activities and assets; elimination of, or cutbacks in, social welfare programs; and reduction of taxes on businesses and the investing class. In the international sphere, neoliberalism calls for free movement of goods, services, capital, and money (but not people) across national boundaries.

[Reference: Kotz, D.M. (2002) ‘Globalization and Neoliberalism’, Rethinking Marxism, 12(2), 64-79].

The hallmarks of this approach are to emphasise external rewards and punishments and to take autonomy away from individuals despite continually claiming that neoliberalism is all about individual freedom and choice.

I will write more about concepts of individual freedom another day.

When Margaret Thatcher espoused her famous – There is no alternative (TINA) mantra – that the ‘market’ and ‘external rewards’ were the only way to organise the economy – she was undermining intrinsic motivation and self-determination.

I have juxtaposed two visions of the economy in previous blog posts.

For example, Towards a progressive concept of efficiency – Part 1 (July 18, 2016).

This graphic summarises the point.


It is derived from Anat Shenker-Osorio’s 2012 book – Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy and provides two alternative visions of the way we think of the people, our natural environment and the economy.

[Reference: Shenker-Osorio, A. (1987) Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy, New York, Public Affairs. References are frm the eBook version]

The left hand panel represents the dominant neo-liberal view, where the basic assumption is that “people and nature exist primarily to serve the economy” (Shenker-Osorio, 2012: Location 439).

In the 1980s, we began to live in economies rather than societies or communities as the neo-liberal narrative gained supremacy.

The economy is figured as a deity that is removed from us though it recognises our endeavours and rewards us accordingly. We are required to have faith (confidence), work hard and make the necessary sacrifices for the good of the ‘economy’: those who do not are rightfully deprived of such rewards. They are miscreants – recidivists – sinners!

The economy is also figured as a living entity. If the government intervenes in the competitive process and provides an avenue where the undeserving (lazy, etc.) can receive rewards then the system becomes ‘sick’.

The solution is to restore the economy’s natural processes (its health), which entails the elimination of government intervention such as minimum wages, job protection, and income support.

This is all about loss of autonomy, loss of competence and loss of relatedness.

External rewards and punishment dominate.

The right-hand panel represents an alternative view of the economy, where the economy works for us as our construction and people are organically embedded and nurtured by the natural environment.

Shenkar-Osorio (2012: Location 1037) says:

This image depicts the notion that we, in close connection with and reliance upon our natural environment, are what really matters. The economy should be working on our behalf. Judgments about whether a suggested policy is positive or not should be considered in light of how that policy will promote our well-being, not how much it will increase the size of the economy.

In this view, the economy is seen as a ‘constructed object’ and policy interventions should be appraised in terms of how functional they are in relation to our broad goals, which a progressive vision would articulate in terms of advancing public wellbeing and maximising the potential for all citizens within the limits of environmental sustainability.

The focus shifts to one of placing our human goals and needs at the centre of our thinking about the economy.

In this narrative, people create the economy.

However, the neoliberal era has elevated the first conception and the consequential domination of external rewards have dominated our intrinsic motivation.

There have been clearly defined stages in this process.

The Communitarian sentiment that prevailed after the Second World War was corrupted by the monied interests of capital in the recovery period, in part, by the rise of mass consumption.

Please read my blog post – The mass consumption era and the rise of neo-liberalism (January 7, 2016) – for more discussion on this point.

This patterned behaviour based on mass consumption was coercive but it diverted attention away from the essential conflicts between labour and capital, which had been more apparent to everyone during the production era before the consumption possibilities expanded for all.

The conformity also allowed capitalists to saturate ‘markets’ with mass produced and ever cheaper products that delivered high margins.

The inner dissatisfaction that accompanied our loss of intrinsic motivation was ‘compensated’ for by the abundance of mass produced goods like never before.

Significantly, the new consumption boom also meant that the distribution of national income had to shift so that workers could purchase the ever-growing flow of goods (and then services) into the shops.

And real wages grew in line with productivity and the problem of capitalist realisation was averted. A period of relative calm emerged and the shopping centres crammed with all manner of goods functioned as the sedative.

This was the period before the financial deregulation began and capital had yet to discover that it could have it both ways: it could suppress real wages growth and still realise the surplus value on the ever-increasing volume of output it was producing by simply loading households up with debt.

The financial engineers would come along a little later to facilitate that new era of financial capital. But during the full employment era, capitalism was forced to share the spoils more evenly and mass consumption and real wages growth was the manifestation of that accommodation.

A related phase was the degradation of work brilliantly documented by the reat American author and activist – Harry Braverman – in his magnificent book – Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1974).

Harry Braverman wrote (pp.170-171):

Thus, after a million years of labour, during which humans created not only a complex social culture but in a very real sense created themselves as well, the very cultural-biological trait upon which this entire evolution is founded has been brought, within the last two hundred years, to a crisis, a crisis which Marcuse aptly calls the threat of a “catastrophe of the human essence”. The unity of thought and action, conception and execution, hand and mind which capitalism threatened from its beginnings, is now attacked by a systematic dissolution employing all the resources of science and the various engineering disciplines based upon it. The subjective factor of the labour process is removed to a place among its inanimate objective factors. To the materials and instruments of production are added a “labour force”, another “factor of production”, and the process is henceforth carried on by management as the sole subjective element.

Progressively, these “labour processes” (market-values) have subsumed our whole lives – sport, leisure, learning, family – the lot. Everything becomes a capitalist surplus-creating process.

The mass consumption era morphed into something even more comprehensive where aspects of our lives that were previously consider ‘non work’ (which meant non capitalist) became markets, with commodities supplied to support. The technological gadget revolution has accelerated this process.

If we judge all human endeavour and activity by whether they are of value in a sense that we judge private profit making then we will limit our potential and our happiness.

This period of sedation, however, was interrupted by the neoliberal financial market deregulation and attacks on trade unions.

First, real wages started lagging behind productivity growth as national income was redistributed towards profits.

Second, to avert a realisation disaster, financial engineering entered the fray and the credit explosion began (in the 1980s).

Please read my blog post – The origins of the economic crisis (February 16, 2009) – for more discussion on this point.

So we entered a period where not only were government services being cut back but workers were unable to gain satisfactory real wage increases despite the rise in productivity and so were reliant on increasing personal debt to maintain their mass consumption.

Neoliberalism was getting ahead of itself.

The domination of external rewards and the suppression of self determination started to create ‘losers’ and the loss of self-esteem and autonomy translated into dissatisfaction with the system and a rising sense of dislocation.

That is the conjecture here.

Bringing this together

The domination of ‘competitive’, ‘individualistic’ constructs in our society have undermined our intrinsic motivations.

For a time, the elevation of external incentives were effective but as neoliberalism started to withdraw them from workers (real wage constraints, excessive debt, foreclosures, etc), they have started to work in a negative fashion, which is undermining their purpose.

In other words, our intrinsic needs are reasserting themselves and group behaviour is on the rise.

Our evolutionary capacities for empathy and belongingness are powerful and when the external rewards are not forthcoming they reassert their influence on our behaviour.

I have often stated that people will only tolerate being suppressed for so long.

It is reasonable to conjecture that the social instability and rebellions that are manifesting around the world in various forms, many of which are not progressive at all, reflect a desire to pursue intrinsic motivation in an environment where the provision of external rewards looks more like punishment and loss than advancement.

The neoliberal capacity to dominate intrinsic motivation and the subjugation of basic needs with external rewards is in decline.

The tensions that are emerging reflect that.

It is possible that the game is up and we are in the death throes of neoliberalism.

The problem then is that the void is being filled by the Right rather than the Left, which is still supporting ideas that are part of the problem not the solution.

The opportunities for the Left

This literature suggests that people want to have work that is secure – whether it be full-time or not. They want some control over their income generating destiny.

Zero hour contracts and rising casualisation with attendent underemployment is the anathema of this need.

People want to have security of housing and not be thrown to the rental market wolves.

At the same time, they are increasingly aware that their sense of security is compromising the capacity of their children to enter the housing market.

People want to see their local communities prospering in a qualitative sense – they don’t want to see whole areas waste away through joblessness and the withdrawal of public services.

People want reliable and cheap public transport systems.

They want public education systems that allow their children to gain mobility as adults. They don’t want public schools starved of funds while private schools receive government handouts and provide the children enrolled with a surfeit of resources.

People want a clean and sustainable environment.

People want effective and affordable health services. They don’t want a system where the rich can access better health care while the poor lose their teeth for want of financial capacity.

People do not want the urban centres prospering while the peripheral regions die a slow and pain death from lack of work and lack of public investment.

And on and on.

These are all needs which appeal to the core values of the traditional Left.

They are the anathema of the approaches taken by the confected Left of the Third Way or the Blairites or the PayGo Democrats or the ‘we will run a bigger surplus’ Labour parties or the ‘we will impose harsher austerity’ of the European social democrat parties.

People are sick of the banks ripping us off. They are sick of Wall-Street/London City types swanning around on huge salaries when it is obvious they add nothing productive to society.

They are sick of Labour Party types who then claim the government is powerless against these financial types.

There is a solid agenda for the Left, if only it has the courage to end its dalliance with neoliberalism and corporatism (such as the Europhile Left who hang onto the EU as a security blanket).


The last word goes to Tony Benn. In an interview with PNS (October 17, 2000) – Commanding Heights – he was asked:

Q: So do you see the pendulum swinging back the other way? Will the movement progress toward free markets, or reverse and go back again?

He replied:

… I mean, the political power of a big corporation — I’ve dealt with them all my life. I mean, I was the energy minister, so I used to deal with the oil companies. And Esso once came to me and said, “We’re not working with you because you’re of a different political philosophy.” So I said, “Thank you very much,” and they went out. I had all the North Sea oil and I had to allocate it, so I didn’t give any to Esso. They came back a year later, and they were on their knees. Amoco wouldn’t cooperate, so they didn’t get any more North Sea oil, so they sacked their top management and came back and got it [from me]. I mean, we’re much more powerful in dealing with big corporations than anyone believes. I remember IBM tried to cancel out our devaluation of the pound by raising the price of all their goods. So I put pressure on them, and they had to capitulate. But you’ve got to fight for the people you elect.

And if the government said, “We’re not having that with Ford,” then Ford would realize they’d better change their policy. Governments are big purses. I mean, if Ford closes its plant in Dagenham, I’d say to them, “We’re never buying another Ford car for the ministry of defense, for the police force,” [and] Ford would capitulate in five minutes. But we’ve been brainwashed into believing that we’re at the mercy of the corporations. We are not at the mercy of the corporations, but they tried to control us, and now they buy political parties to be their agents …

Call for financial assistance to make the MMT University project a reality

I am in the process of setting up a 501(c)(3) organisation under US law, which will serve as a funding vehicle for the MMT Education project – MMT University – that I hope to launch early-to-mid 2019.

For equity reasons, I plan to offer all the tuition and material (bar the texts) for free to ensure everyone can participate irrespective of personal financial circumstance.

Even if I was to charge some fees the project would need additional financial support to ensure it will be sustainable.

So to make it work I am currently seeking sponsors for this venture.

The 501(c)(3) funding structure means you can contribute to the not-for-profit organisation (which will be at arm’s length to the not-for-profit educational venture) in the knowledge that your support will not be publicly known.

Alternatively, if you wish to have your support for the venture publicly acknowledged there will information presented on the Home Page of the MMT University to acknowledge that funding.

To ensure the project has longevity I am hoping to obtain some long-term support proposals.

At present, I estimate I will need about AUD 150k per year.

Note that most of these funds will support an administrative support staff (1 person fractional), data charges, and video editing and design staff (as needed).

I will personally take no payment for the work I am putting into the project nor will other key Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) academics, who have agreed to help in the educational program.

So I cannot do this without sufficient support. My research group does not have the financial capacity to support this venture.

I also do not wish to place advertisements on my blog posts.

You will be contributing to a progressive venture.

Please E-mail me if you can help.

I have some funding pledges already but I am not near the target yet.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2019 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 27 Comments

  1. I believe the left versus right framing is unproductive. It must be obvious to everyone by now that there are a broad swathe of people who self-identify as ‘left’ for whom MMT and the JG will forever be anathema. Simultaneously, there are reasonable people on the ‘centre’ and ‘right’ who are repelled by both historical notions of statist socialism and neoliberalism and for whom a radical redesign will be welcome, should it be packaged in the right way.

    For example, there are ideas that revolve around “radical markets” (https://radicalxchange.org/blog/posts/2019-01-14-j73qnz/) which seek to destroy capitalism -with- markets, by completely redesigning what it means to own property. You wouldn’t call this ‘left’, while at the same time being the opposite of ‘right’. So what is it? It’s against a UBI, but seeks to distribute a social dividend from efficiently-used resources to everyone. Its central idea is putting -everything- up for continuous sale to the highest bidder, all the time. MMT and the JG would be much easier to market than that, but only because they’re easy to understand, incremental improvements to the current milieu that piggyback off cold war ideas of left and right, whereas ‘radical markets’ and other way out ideas seek to redesign everything by recognising that the world and the people in it -are- different to the spherical-shapes modeled by old economics.

    Maybe it’s time to pitch to a different type of person, rather than trying to rally the rusted-on left, who are so invested in their tribe and its moribund ideas they will never see the forest for the trees.

  2. I usually read your posts first thing in the morning. But this one touches on subjects that lie outside the field of standard economics. It deserves careful reading and analysis, even consulting directly the sources cited. I will read it during the weekend.

  3. I once had a small book about East Germany (John Green) which I lent and never got back which described how the school system encouraged cooperation within a class. The more advanced pupils helped the slower ones out of a sense of group pride. This is how worker-owned co-ops work: co-op within, competition without.

  4. Anat Shenker-Osorio’s description of how we conceive of The Economy, that Bill draws upon, is amusing and memorable. As described in the preface to her book, it comes from a 2009 episode of South Park “Margaritaville” – during an economic decline:

    The citizens cower upon realising the truth – the Economy is an angry and vengeful God. Because South Parkers have paid insufficient homage to it, the Economy visits ruination and recession upon them. A character lectures a crowd of rapt listeners, ‘There are those who will say the Economy has forsaken us. Nay! You have forsaken the Economy. And now you know the Economy’s wrath.’

    The solution in South Park, as will be familiar to modernday Greeks and low-income Americans, is sacrifice.

    Shenker-Osorio lists other things we mustn’t do to avoid the Economy’s displeasure:

    Other things that supposedly give the economy apoplexy? Take your pick: regulations, welfare programmes, government spending, helping the poor, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.


    Mainline thinking about the U.S. economy is starting to resemble Scientology: beyond a coterie of high-profile, high-income believers, the more of us outside the fold fold learn about the teachings, the wackier the whole enterprise sounds. Members who leave either orthodoxy – in one case a church and in the other a market-worship orientation-are shunned and ostracized.

  5. Dear Bill,

    I’n not sure that SDT can do the work you want of it here. Don’t forget that Deci and Ryan’s “basic needs” are basic psychological needs. People still have physiological needs (for food, shelter and so on) that count as external motivations in SDT. How many farmers are intrinsically motivated by the joy of getting up at 5:30 or 6 o’clock on a January morning (northern hemisphere) to milk the cows? But we depend on them for our milk. And so it goes for countless other goods and services.

    I’m not saying that the current system of work cannot be optimised to increase the intrinsic motivation associated with labour, but the link to the critique of neo-liberalism seems weak. I’m sure that if your piece were read by a libertarian (for example), they would retort that the state is just as coercive as capitalist enterprises, and so the consequences for people’s psychological would be just as damaging.

  6. Hi Bill, I am so glad that you and Thomas have decided to write a book that looks at the social psychology of neo-liberalism. Philip Mirowski has looked at the history of neo-liberalism and had a good crack at it, its now time to look at the socio – psycho -biological aspects of neo-liberalism and its narrative. I remember reading Harry Braverman’s book so many years ago thanks to the insistence of Frank Stilwell and it was worth the effort. Perhaps Noam Chomsky can also shed some light here from a linguistics angle. I wish you well in your endeavour and look forward to reading it, when its completed.

  7. Carol, the book is available on Amazon as a reprint: Stasi State or Socialist Paradise?: The German Democratic Republic and What Became of it. Paperback – 1 Sep 2015
    by Bruni De La Motte (Author), John Green (Author). Thank you for mentioning it.

  8. Brett Christophers’ The New Enclosures might be a relevant addition to your thesis. It could be viewed as the geography of neoliberalism, the privatization of public space. This sort of reduction in the public space can affect one’s psychological states.

  9. Two thousand years ago, a then rather small-time Palestinian prophet, in a single saying, captured the essence of much of what Bill is talking about. “The Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath.” What’s true of the Sabbath is true of the economy, and it’s also true of the government, if you ponder the Preamble to America’s Declaration of Independence. What it’s not true of, as has become increasingly clear, is the natural environment which sustains all interconnected life, human and otherwise. I would submit that while many of us, indeed a growing number of us, now know these things, what we don’t know is how to put ourselves into a position to put these truths into practice beyond an individual or small community level. That’s the quandary we’re stuck in, and concrete advice about how to work through it and move beyond it proved difficult to find prior to “Reclaiming the State.” Let’s hope that Bill and Tom’s new book fleshes out even more fully just how we are to go about this crucial reclaiming.

  10. “How many farmers are intrinsically motivated by the joy of getting up at 5:30 or 6 o’clock on a January morning (northern hemisphere) to milk the cows?”

    Here’s a passage from Wendell Berry: _Looking Ahead_, collected in _The Gift of Good Land_:

    “When I was a boy I used to dread the hay harvest. It seemed an awful drudgery: the lifting was heavy and continuous; the weather was hot; the work was dusty; the chaff stuck to your skin and itched. And then one winter I stayed home and I fed out the hay we had put out the summer before. I learned the other half of the story then, and after that I never minded. The hay that goes up in the heat comes down into the mangers in the cold. That is when its meaning is clearest, and when the satifsaction is completed.

    And so, six months after we shed all that sweat, there comes a bitter cold January evening when I go up to the horse barn to feed. It is nearly nightfall, and snowing hard. The north wind is driving the snow through the cracks in the barn wall. I bed the stalls, put corn in the troughs, climb into the loft and drop the rations of fragrant hay into the mangers. I go to the back door and open it; the horses come in and file along the driveway to their stalls, the snow piled white on their backs. The barn fills with the sounds of their eating. It is time to go home. I have my comfort ahead of me: talk, supper, fire in the stove, something to read. But I know too that all my animals are well fed and comfortable, and my comfort is enlarged in theirs. On such a night you do not feed out of necessity or duty. You never think of the money value of the animals. You feed and care for them out of fellow feeling, because you want to. And when I go out and shut the door, I am satisfied.”

    The whole book is shot through with the idea of — to say it precisely — the antithesis of alienated labor.

    When I read “people want to have work that is secure”, the urge arose to quibble. My gut feeling was that people wan work they can understand and approve of. I guess the two statements are compatible. People will have no way to understand fragmented work that will be 100% different in another, say, three hours, and their approval would be absurd in an environment as casual as that.

    Anybody looking for supplementary reading following this article might like Wendell Berry.
    Also, in a darker mood, Solzhenitsyn’s _One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich_.

  11. @Newton Finn: it’s a pity that that probably fictional – no real evidence exists – small-time Palestinian prophet didn’t prophesy what we’d do to the natural environment which sustains all interconnected life, human and otherwise, in a couple of millennia, and deliver some words of wisdom to us about that.

    Thanks, Wayne McMillan, for mentioning Frank Stillwell which led me to search and find a reference to his speech in 2011 in Australia which began “Understanding labour, capital and land is central to political economy”. Yes, ‘land’ which economists have tended to ignore for the last century or so.

  12. Dear dnm (at 2019/01/21 at 9:50 pm)

    Thanks for your comment.

    This is just the start of the story.

    Our material needs are significant but the point is that if everything is provided exclusively via a profit-seeking ‘market’ then this erodes our intrinsic motivation and also creates ‘winners and losers’, which not only have material consequences but also then impact on our sense of self-determination.

    And, as the external rewards are reduced away or taken away, then trouble begins in earnest.

    But yesterday’s blog post was just a sketch of the idea. Research is on-going (as usual).

    best wishes

  13. Problem with modern society is that it is unnatural for us. Few people realize we were never evolved to live in this kind of society.

    Most of us are descendants from people who lived in family farms with their kin, independent, self-sufficient, working often with same people they had known since birth, at their own pace and time of choosing. There were no jobs, careers or even schools just two hundred years ago.

    What have we become now? Like headless chickens we chase after careers, moving for school, study, job, new job, re-education and new career. We lose contact with our childhood friends, friends, family, colleagues, relatives et cetera. We have trouble forming families and many developed nations face population decline. And loneliness is national crisis says even the mainstream media.

    Why are we doing this to ourselves? All in a time when our living standards have never been greater? One answer is that powers that be want it, and very few people possess actual power. Surveys indicate that people want less work and more leisure, lower retirement age etc. But neoliberals are of course obsessed with just the opposite.

    And very few are critical, people just go on with their business day in and day out, without ever thinking, however unhealthy and taxing that may be. Economists too, as a whole, are guilty of prioritizing economic production over human well-being.

  14. Bill, I so much enjoy and agree with your economics (though as a pretty ignorant layman) and politics. Sadly, I cannot support your liking for Group Selection. To me there are other more believable sources of such characteristics as altruism. Please read: http://www.edge.org/conversation/steven_pinker-the-false-allure-of-group-selection. I am also sure you could have an exellent conversation with Richard Dawkins, who is of a left wing persuasion (though an adversary to us both regarding Brexit) and who coined the term Meme – which may have some bearing on human culture.

  15. Dear Bill,

    I look forward to the fruits of your research. One thing that is not clear to me is how your criticism applies specifically to neoliberalism. It could be directed equally well at any form of capitalism. It is almost like a marxist critique, overlain with some psychological theorising.

  16. Let me give you another “APPLICATION” example: yesterday I watched 6 groups of student doctors having their competence tested with the help of orthopaedic patients.

    To see these bright-eyed young people enthusiastically attempting to convince their superiors and student colleagues of their ability to assess and diagnose medical conditions was a pleasure to witness – there was no doubt whatsoever that their motivation was intrinsic; the desire to be approved at group level no less obvious.

    One other element stood out as a manifestation of their incentive – the desire to compete; not only to achieve a satisfactory attainment at group level but also at a personal level too. Each student appeared to want to prove to him(her)self that they could reach a level they had set for themselves.

    This suggests that intrinsic motivation includes a competitive process, as does many other aspects of human enterprise. Extend that concept far enough and you may end up with economies that are built on competitive markets.

  17. Wilfred Whattam,

    Evolutionary psychology is beset with many problems. It’s chief defect is that it can’t explain itself in its own terms, that is, what is the evolutionary value of evolutionary psychology.

    The scientific claims of ‘objectivity’ in this area are dubious because we can’t separate out the thinking from the thinker-the observer is the observed. This is quite different from other aspects of science although it can be an issue there too.

    Although people like Dawkins might nominally be on the Left, there work, in my view, has assisted the neo-liberal project even if it is unwittingly. I once heard a talk by Dawkins where he stated (as it it were fact-he always does this) that ‘we not only use information, we ARE information.’ This reducing of the human to data is at the heart of neo-liberalism.

    There is a fascinating encounter between Pinker and Stephen Rose where Rose challenges the social implications of evolutionary psychology which produces a sort of feedback loop where assertions that, for example, we are self-seeking, survival machines is told to us so many times that it actually influences our perception and becomes a self-confirming prophecy.

    I also suspect, though can’t show it, that evolutionary psychology has a grand Canyon sized blind spot and always misses the point that rather than being objective it is fulfilling cultural interests connected with power and control.

    Constantly drawing parallels between human and animal behaviour (which Huxley started in the 19th Century) is of limited use ultimately because of the capacity of human thought.

    I doubt we can fully separate biology from politics-the view of our biology/psychology will be enmeshed with the dominant economic and political dogmas of the era we live in.

    It’s often struck me as telling that authors like E.O. Wilson and Dawkins came out with their seminal books exactly at the time neo-liberalism was starting to strut its stuff -anecdotal maybe but I find that interesting.

    By the way, I regard Dawkin’s concept of the ‘meme’ pretty otiose, a sort of Emporer’s new Clothes non-insight purporting to be insight.

  18. Gogs

    ‘This suggests that intrinsic motivation includes a competitive process’.

    Are you sure what you were witnessing was a ‘competitive process’? Many students are unsure of themselves and so will naturally use comparison as a gauge for the level they are at. Others, more confident within themselves will not do so as much.

    I have found that ‘competitive processes’ are inimical to intrinsic interest. As a music teacher, I found that comparison with others could be a big deflator which de-motivated rather than allowed the individual to pursue their interest at whatever level they managed.

    I’d guess (only a guess) that excessive comparison and competition is the result of a pathology connected with doubts about self worth and self-esteem which is rife in our culture.

    Interesting subject for research, though.

  19. Simon, 20.01

    Indeed, motivation and the competitive process are intriguing concepts to explore.

    There is an underlying assumption that markets are generally driven by competitive process – that this produces winners and losers. The wide spread of human characteristics also suggests that some people are more suited to that competitive process than others – and that accounts to some extent for human inequalities (as well as the influence of luck etc).

    Since the industrial revolution the competitive process has allowed those with certain characteristics to benefit at the expense of others, but we have all been attracted to the benefits by the advent of consumerism and all its beguiling lustre.

    It might just be a phase we are going through in the development of mankind (institutions like the NHS suggest there is a better way of conducting life), but our 1000’s of years of historic conflict and atrocities suggest we have a way to travel yet.

  20. Great article. I’m a relatively new comer to enlightening myself on the causes and effects of public policy and the macro economic forces that we subject ourselves and our planet to (or perhaps forced upon us depending on your view). While it will take me a while to digest the entirety of what is written, I didn’t have to force myself to read twice.


  21. Wilfrid Whattam, Dawkins did not invent the term, ‘meme’; he popularized it. Cf. William Durham, Coevolution.

    I personally wouldn’t take what Pinker says at face value. He can be superficial and miss technical features of his topic. Let me take his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, where he claims that violent conflicts have decreased. I mention this because it has generated some technical controversy. Two resources are Beauchamp’s “This fascinating academic debate has huge implications for the future of world peace” from Vox in May 2015 and Cirillo & Taleb’s “The Decline of Violent Conflicts: What Do The Data Really Say?” at Taleb’s web site, fooledbyrandomness. Beauchamp’s article contains links to a number of comments on the issue. I perhaps should mention that Taleb can sometimes be rude in commentary. Could this be a consequence of the reaction of the finance community to his early work? I don’t know, though, initially, his only supporter was Benoit Mandelbrot, who had come to similar, overlapping conclusions from a different direction about the GFC (based on work he had carried out since the 1960s). Bill’s reaction to negative comments is one to be emulated, if you can do it.

  22. ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature, where he claims that violent conflicts have decreased.’

    Good point Larry. I remember, in an interview, Pinker referring to the two World Wars as ‘blips.’
    I’ve not really read much of his stuff partly out of prejudicial feelings based in seeing him in interviews which is a poor show on my part. I just felt him to be singing from the hymn sheet of neo-liberalism-due to technology/capitalism, ‘things are getting better all the time’. You here globalists talking like this where they say things like Chinese people jumping of buildings because of appallingly monotonous work is just a ‘short term’ evolutionary thing and they will campaign for better conditions eventually as capitalism weaves its magic.

    In the 30th Anniversary edition of his ‘Selfish Gene’, Dawkins seems to claim that the word ‘meme’ is his and typically fanfares how proud he is that it is in the Oxford English Dictionary!

  23. I’m not particularily fond of evolutionary arguments when discussing complex human behavior, because I consider the latter to have developed su much faster than the former, as to have had an actual impact in evolutionary terms. Even if one would consider JC as the first humanitarian, what are 2000 years in terms of human evolution?

    I rather think in mere cognitive terms. For example, humans tend to value results (output) more than the process that led to them, i.e. we look for patterns in observable data and find them even when in reality there are none to be found. Additionally, the need for what I will now simply call “inner consistency” and self-worth makes what one wants to believe appear more appealing than other possibilities. Thus, we as humans tend to internalize success and to externalize failure. This leeds to the relatively harmless “winner’s bias” or in more dire situations to the type of respondant from Milgrams famous shock therapy experiment, that “[…] had transferred the blame to the learner: “He was so stupid and stubborn he deserved to be shocked.”.

    Furthermore, we tend to rate the short term way higher than the long term. That doesn’t mean one won’t make concessions to the group now for a reward next week, but it can lead to disparate situations even when the probability of a dire event in the long term is near 1. Think of our inadequacy to confront climate change: “Sure, global catastrophe is imminent, but do you have any idea what implementing a carbon neutral policy would do to the stock market?!”.

    When you put all together, neoliberalism as the economic implementation of extreme individualism, exploits most of our cognitive weaknesses as human beings and thus feels more “natural” to , apparently, most people.

    Furhtermore, it delivers a moral justification for the greediness of man (as J.K. Galbraith aptly put it), while providing an argument to stymie a collective effort by the “non-succesful”, by decrying it collaboration as immoral and/or a sign of individual weakness.

    Since the common information channels are in the hands of those succesful individuals, it seems understandable to me that the neoliberal mantra is also the loudest and most common of views represented in media and academia.

    Excellent post, Bill, and very interesting replies, too.

  24. I think Bill is being very naive in his approach to the issues at hand, trying desperately to find a generous natural social impulse in humanity.

    If there was such an impulse which was sufficient to naturally move human societies to socialist forms of economic organization then where are examples of this in history at a national scale. Every significant socialist revolution has been accompanied by violence and coercion. Why haven’t socialist societies evolved naturally at a national scale?

    Bill should spend more time studying history/sociology rather than psychology.

    The impulse to social/community centric behaviour may exist at the level of kin and tribe. Once the motivations of kin and tribe are seemingly dissolved in grand aggregations of humans, as has been the obvious trend through history, the impulse to social/community centric behaviour is lost also, or at least, considerably diminished.

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