The Life-Economy Principle of Justice

John McMurtry

We have many received concepts of justice, but none is grounded in what we ultimately care about, world life itself. The life-economy concept of justice, in contrast, is defined as a process of self-organizing life space reclamation which serves human and environmental needs. We need here to distinguish a need from mere desire or market demand by the fact that life’s capabilities are reduced or destroyed without it (e.g., nutritious versus junk food).

A life-economy movement is now growing across the world. Self-organizing recovery of unused and misused arable lands by dispossessed rural people is a movement already established in Brazil, Columbia, Central America and Mexico, West Africa from Kenya through Zimbabwe to South Africa, and India, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. "Across most of the third world, we are seeing the emergence of a new source of hope, of new dreams – those of the largely non-violent poor people’s movements who sidestep government inaction and take matters firmly into their own hands". This description expresses well the meaning of "self-organizing life space reclamation" of the life-economy transformation.

Ahead of the curve of Northern theory, the life-economy movement is led by local communities themselves to reclaim the life-ground now being despoiled or destroyed by corporate globalization. The justice which communities here seek can be recognized by the underlying principle they realize – humanity retaking wasted resources for the growing of life means for life – liberating land from occupation by landlord classes not using it, from misuse in new golf courses or military seizures, from recreational occupation by urban money-sequencers, and from other forms of life dispossession by profit-driven looting and waste.

Concrete Cases. La Via Campesina, the Global Congress of Landless Peasants’ Movements, the 500,000-strong Brazilian landless movement, and India’s Chipko movement are diverse manifestations of the life-economy movement on the land. So is the struggle of Russian and East European farmers for retention of farmland from omniverous real-estate exploitation.

In some cases, the government assists or recognizes the land takeovers by the poor, as in Brazil and Zimbabwe, but in both cases with mixed meaning. In Brazil, there is still systematic discrimination against the poorest by exclusion of title, and in Zimbabwe there is a conflict between seizing land for family farming, or for political loot. In most cases of movements onto expropriated or wasted land, the response is armed attack by landlord killers, or by US-financed or armed militias and rule by terror (as throughout Central America in the 1980s and in Columbia since 2000).

Who Is Right? The life economy principle resolves opposed claims of right by its principle of justice – which selects for life capital formation and protection instead of money-capital growth i.e., turning money-demand into ever more money-demand for money possessors. It follows from this principle that land takeovers are just if they transform unused, wasted or non-food soils into life capital – means of life which produce more means of life. The life-ground ethic, conversely, cuts against foreign corporate landlords who increasingly take over people’s foodlands for cash crops (as in Latin America, Africa, and now China), or charge 50%-of-harvest rental fees which starve small tenant-farmers (as in India).

World reclamation of the small-scale farm has just results beyond poor families: biodiverse and less mono-cropped and exhausted soils, less chemically destructive farming and less herbicide, pesticide and other toxic residues in crops, and more life-efficient use of arable land increasingly depleted by industrial agribusiness – consequences which serve the lives of all people and ecosystems around the world. If the over $140 billion of current government subsidies to industrial corporate farming were discontinued, biodiversity requirements were instituted, and externalized costs to societies were internalized by corporate agribusiness, the small-scale farm with endogenous inputs is undeniably more efficient at growing food when all costs are factored in.

Small-scale organic food production is more marketable too – as sophisticated world consumers are showing with their exponentially rising demand for organic produce which now far exceeds global supply. Reclamation of the life economy generates effects of life service and restoration across the world – systematically reducing pollution and conserving groundwater, clean air cycling, and civil commons landscapes for all. The money-profit calculus, in contrast, cannot even compute any of these life-values within its price metric. Justice at every level is best served by life scales. But even mainstream university researchers still remain in thrall to the dominant system which, they fail to recognize, is structurally life-blind.

Self-organizing reclamation of life capital also applies to the world’s forests and fisheries. Action is justified in proportion to the life capital reclaimed, becoming more entitled the more it converts what is being hoarded, wasted, degraded or destroyed into the life-base for more flourishing and biodiverse life. This is the life principle of justice which bridges morality, economics and the rule of law as a global ethic.

The Just War for Life. "Just war" here can be defined as a no-holds-barred struggle in which deadly force of all kinds is confronted to preserve life that would otherwise be destroyed. There can be no question of which side is right – life or life-destruction – although our current economic system cannot yet fathom the distinction. What protects more vitally comprehensive life is just. What oppresses it is unjust. This is the inner moral code of the life-economy movement. It joins the landless and the poor, the unwaged and the waged, the professional and the citizens of all countries in a universal struggle to liberate the planet from the money-sequence absolutism which is now called, in Orwellian fashion, "neo-liberalism" and "freedom."

Industrial workers’ movements and social intellectuals have already led the way here for over 150 years, and their instituted gains for human life across generations is inscribed in life standards of labour, social charters and human rights whose global universalization has been internalized as a global human project. All of these planes of the world-wide movement express a unifying meaning – organizing of life in accordance with its endogenous principles of vital need satisfaction for the development of human and ecosystem capabilities and biodiverse expression.

Codified Life-Standards. Codified standards are already at work in many spheres to select for life-economy development. The constitutional criterion of academic freedom does this for all places of learning. Workers’ unions have negotiated and struck over life-code terms for more than a century. The women of any community provide this codification across cultures where they are most effective. The peace movement, the physicians for social responsibility, the world-wide challenge to transnational trade diktats, the leading-edge environmental organizations, municipal and bio-regional activists – all are variations on the life-ground movement, and all advance public understanding by the codified life standards they stand for.

As environmental, peace and other movements for life develop across the globe, the tyrannical program of financial and armed-force rule is exposed. People recognize that corporate globalization means universal insecurity, war, pollution, waste and unaccountability to any life standard. The emerging life-economy movement thereby becomes conscious of its meaning. It takes back the concourses of people for life, the coastal waters for connection underneath the factory and leisure machines, the classrooms for learning rather than corporate propaganda, and the public sites of political decisions expropriating people’s life-ground by "privatization" and "deregulation."

As a Chinese philosopher, Wang-Yang Ming, once said: Everywhere the problem is, stands the task. Every moment of the long advance of humanity across generations, in fact, expresses the life-code of value as the metabolism of its becoming. It is a movement that cannot be decapitated, that cannot be repressed everywhere at once, and that multiplies its spheres of engagement as global understanding spreads. This is the period in which we now live beneath the saturating propaganda of the global market and war.

John McMurtry, F.R.S.C.
Professor of Philosophy
University of Guelph

Professor McMurtry has recently returned from invited participation in a five-continent conference in Kyoto, arising from his paradigm concept of "the life economy" developed in his latest book, Value Wars: The Global Market versus the Life Economy (London: Pluto, 2002).

— from Economic Reform, December 2002