Thursday, October 2, 2014

Unmaking the Manifesto: Humanism and Economics

The various incarnations of the Humanist Manifesto stand as contemporary assessments of the current state of Humanism by some of the bests minds our movement had to offer. The manifestos seek to simultaneously define the present and speculate as to the future of Humanist thought. As human creations, the Manifestos are works in progress; they can never be perfect articulations of Humanism, they are instead the best approximations currently possible.

When the first Humanist Manifesto was written in 1932, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. The capitalist economic system was broken, and millions of people suffered the after effects of an economy where too few owned too much and the inherent failings of capitalism went unrecognized with disastrous results. The forward looking writers of Manifesto I were living in a culture of failed capitalism, so Article 14 is an unabashed call for some sort of socialist alternative, (indeed, the very use of the word "Manifesto" summoned thoughts of Karl Marx and socialism in most minds) reading,
The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.

Flash forward forty years, and a socialized and cooperative economic order is no where to be found. Instead, western style capitalism was rescued by adopting Keynesian fixes, and the Soviet Union was mired in a slowly dying experiment with communism. In 1973 the United States and the USSR were locked in a cold war, and the competing systems of democratic capitalism and totalitarian communism presented the world with a false choice. Seeing this, the writers of Manifesto II included the following line in its preface, “Purely economic and political viewpoints, whether capitalist or communist, often function as religious and ideological dogma.”

Having rejected the false choice on offer from the competing world superpowers, the economic and political focus of Manifesto II seems to be on social democracy, with an emphasis on Keynesian economics and strong social safety nets. For instance, Article 8 says,
We are committed to an open and democratic society. We must extend participatory democracy in its true sense to the economy, the school, the family, the workplace, and voluntary associations. Decision-making must be decentralized to include widespread involvement of people at all levels - social, political, and economic.
Article 10 is even more pointed, reading,
Humane societies should evaluate economic systems not by rhetoric or ideology, but by whether or not they increase economic well-being for all individuals and groups, minimize poverty and hardship, increase the sum of human satisfaction, and enhance the quality of life. Hence the door is open to alternative economic systems. We need to democratize the economy and judge it by its responsiveness to human needs, testing results in terms of the common good.
This is a smart, forward thinking and Humanist approach to economics. Systems of resource distribution should be judged on their ability to enhance human well-being, not on ideas such as growth or profits. Leaving the door open to “alternative economic systems” is scientific common sense and an acknowledgment that the future may be very different and that a new economic perspective might be needed.

Article 15 of Manifesto II is a call or more cooperation between governments, and possibly a call for a world governing body, a simultaneously pragmatic and utopian idea in 1973. Article 15 also addresses the problems inherent in Capitalism, such as rising wealth inequality, forthrightly enough, anticipating Thomas Piketty, and other modern critics of capitalism, saying,
World poverty must cease. Hence extreme disproportions in wealth, income, and economic growth should be reduced on a worldwide basis.

By 2003 Capitalism was in ascendance, and had reached its peak in terms of human utility. Over a decade had passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of history’s end, so the revised Humanist Manifesto III paid little attention to the previous calls for socialist revolution or economic reform. Instead, it made a far weaker claim, reading,
...we support a just distribution of nature's resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.
Putting aside the diminished expectations in focusing on "as many as possible" versus "all individuals and groups," Manifesto III leaves open the definition of the term “just distribution.” This is in part because this document was supposed to be shorter, it’s length pre-planned to “fit on one page” as one of the Manifesto writers once told me. But it occurs to me that the lack of a specific economic agenda also served to minimize the disagreements in Humanist thought between those of a libertarian or objectivist inclination and those with socialist or anarchist leanings. “Just distribution,” after all, is an almost meaningless phrase that can be championed by Objectivists and socialists alike to describe the effect of their economic theories.

This is how neoliberalism, or free market radicalism, corrupted Humanism. Not by defeating the arguments for socialist democracy or Keynesian capitalism, but by throwing the entire idea of a Humanist approach to economics into doubt. Crank economist Milton Friedman had hoodwinked a generation into wealth inequality and endless war, and instead of confronting this growing form of anti-humanism head on, Humanists attempted to reconcile with it by leaving the economic question open and abandoning an earlier, powerful commitment to social and economic justice through heavily regulated capitalism or socialism.

In the current world of imminent economic and ecological collapse, the lack of a coherent Humanist economic philosophy in Manifesto III has left Manifestos I and II as our best official statements on economics. I look forward to Manifesto IV (2033?) for a fuller, more grounded and more Humanist approach to resource distribution, but in the meantime our articulated economic philosophy dates from 1973.

This means that unfortunately, given our current crisis, mainstream Humanism has little to offer in terms of economic wisdom, and this is a shame because even in 2003, the weak and unscientific philosophical underpinnings of neoliberalism were obvious, and this could have been avoided.


  1. Well put. If we use the word "atheism" instead of "humanism," this is why I tell people not all atheists, by any means, are liberals.

    1. Agreed. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins, for instance, may be liberal on some issues, but their geopolitics and economics seem staunchly conservative.

  2. In fairness to Christopher Hitchens, he had been a leftist for a good many years. Indeed, he was a member for several years of the International Socialists in Britain (which later became the Socialist Workers Party). However, over the years. Hitchens moved rightwards, especially after 9-11. By the time that Hitchens began to become famous as a New Atheist writer, he was no longer identified in any meaningful sense with the left or with progressive politics.

    Dawkins was always politically center-left. He was a longtime member of the British Labour Party until he had a falling out with Tony Blair over the Iraq war.After becoming famous as a New Atheist writer (as opposed to being famous as an evolutionary biologist), he began to echo the Islamophobia of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitechens.

  3. I agree with this analysis, having only just discovered (from a link in a discussion elsewhere) but I think it's worth consideration of the other declarations/manifestos to get a more complete picture. While Manifesto I was markedly more socialist in its statements, the first Amsterdam Declaration (1952) of IHEU had already largely abandoned a Humanist economic critique. This is also seen to some extent in Kurtz's declarations in the 80s (despite his involvement in Manifesto II). When we finally get to the Humanist Manifesto 2000 (Kurtz & CFI) we see some talk of the need to "alleviate poverty" and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but no uniform comment on the oppression of the human condition that economics can play. The same is true of the Amsterdam Declaration 2002, which is an update to the 1952 statement and another sort of one-pager on Humanism (which has an important place in bringing a complex worldview to a broader public understanding).