The use of the
term “subsistence” is ambiguous and confused. The following comment focuses on the
meaning that is very important in the discussion of the economy. The economy assumed in The Simpler Way
is a subsistence economy.
The term is commonly taken to indicate a
situation in which very poor tribal or peasant families barely survive by just
producing enough to feed themselves.
“Modernisation” and “development’ are essentially thought of as requiring
the replacement of subsistence economies.
However if we consider what the economies
of tribes and peasant villages were like before being impacted by
Western society we see that these were typically complex, integrated at the
village level (as distinct from being about an isolated family), and
satisfactory and effective in meeting needs.
Following are the characteristics of a
subsistence economy as the term is used here.
crucial themes is producing with the intention and expectation that
the product will be used by the individual or his community to satisfy
need, not with the intention of selling it to receive money. The focus is not on the production
of commodities, items to be sold into the market in order to be
able to buy products from the market.
is best thought of at the communal level, not that of the individual. In the subsistence economies of
tribes, monasteries, peasant villages and communes the intention is to
produce what members of the community want and to distribute those things
to them via mutually beneficial procedures. These may involve selling but
if so the point is only to facilitate exchange and accounting. There can also be trade between
communities, and trade with an external conventional/modern economy, but
these are minor elements and are engaged in to secure small quantities of
locally unavailable items and are not engaged in to accumulate monetary
concern is to suffice, to produce just enough for a satisfactory
life. Production, work, sales
and consumption are minimised rather than maximised. Non-market and
non-monetary processes are maximised, such as production within
households, mutual exchanges, giving and assisting. Modern economies are obsessed with
a fierce determination to maximize, income, profits, sales, GDP, trade, investment,
considerations such as tradition, rights and justice take precedence in
production, distribution and development decisions. The distinction
between this situation and the modern economy is enormous. In a capitalist economy the only
consideration is the maximization of profit, income, and monetary
wealth. This is the basic
cause of most of our problems.
Many bad things happen because the moral, social, ecological etc
costs involved can be ignored because the only factor that
has to be taken into account by an investor, seller or purchaser is what
will maximize monetary benefit to him. (Governments curtail the process
and stop the market having effects that are too destructive, but this is
the extent to which “socialist” principles restrain the operation of raw
overriding element is that production is not carried out in order to
make profits or accumulate wealth, or to invest a surplus in order to
increase wealth or capital stock.
Accumulation is the defining characteristic of capitalism, and
shows its essential link with growth.
Subsistence economies are stable and their participants are not
seeking to accumulate.
- In a subsistence economy capital is of little or no
depends on whether the community has the labour, land, stone, timber,
seeds, knowledge etc. necessary for the project,
not on whether a sum of money can be obtained.
therefore involves independence from the global economy and its sources of
capital, and the resulting debt and entrapment.
- A major
characteristic of subsistence economies is security. Communities are
independent of the normal national or international economies, being able
to produce necessities for themselves, having inter-dependence and mutuality,
and focusing on effectiveness and sufficiency rather than efficiency and
maximising. These provide high
levels of safety in the face of adverse natural events or the devastation
that the fickle and predatory national and international economies can
inflict. What matters is being
able to continue to provide, to get by, no matter what happens and no
matter if production is “inefficient’.
The Simpler Way is based on an analysis of the global situation which stresses the coming era of intense and irremediable
scarcity. Growth and affluence
society is grossly unsustainable and unjust and there is no possibility of
maintaining the levels of resource use typical of rich countries today must be
replaced by mostly small, localized and highly self-sufficient economies run by
participatory processes, and based on a culture of frugal, cooperative
non-material values. The argument
is that we can live well in these societies. These economies are well-described
as subsistence economies according to the above list of criteria.