An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Capitalist democracy needs rethinking and renewal. Our current political economic framework is fixated on GDP, individual achievement, and short-term profit, all the while heightening barriers to widespread prosperity. Faced with mounting climate crises and systemic discrimination, we must reimagine ways to ensure ethical flourishing for all. In response, the Winter 2023 issue of Dædalus focuses on “Creating a New Moral Political Economy,” and addresses these long-standing problems and how to combat the resultant unequal footing across the polity, marketplace, and workplace. In eleven main essays and twenty-two responses, the authors raise questions about how to create supportive social movements that prioritize collective, equitable, and respectful responsibility for care of the earth and its people.

Detail of a storyboard for the Academy Award–winning short film The Lost Thing, based on Shaun Tan’s book of the same name. Tan says that The Lost Thing incorporates “ideas about social apathy and dehumanizing economic policies,” depicting a city where “all value and meaning is so clearly defined, it leaves no room for alternative ideas and inventiveness.” But those who follow the clues can discover the door to a place where the things that don’t fit can be found. Tan’s image captures what we wanted to create with this issue–a first sketch of a political and economic world that seems morally exhausted, but that has wonderful possibilities for change if only we lift up our eyes. We’re grateful to Tan for giving us permission to use his art. Tram Window Landscape storyboard © 2008 by Shaun Tan. Film © 2010 by Passion Pictures Australia and Screen Australia.
A detail of an illustrated storyboard showing dejected commuters from the perspective of a passing tram. Hidden among them is a strange winged creature with a lightbulb for a head, representing an alternative to the bleak urban industrial environment.
Detail of a storyboard for the Academy Award–winning short film The Lost Thing, based on Shaun Tan’s book of the same name. Tan says that The Lost Thing incorporates “ideas about social apathy and dehumanizing economic policies,” depicting a city where “all value and meaning is so clearly defined, it leaves no room for alternative ideas and inventiveness.” But those who follow the clues can discover the door to a place where the things that don’t fit can be found. Tan’s image captures what we wanted to create with this issue–a first sketch of a political and economic world that seems morally exhausted, but that has wonderful possibilities for change if only we lift up our eyes. We’re grateful to Tan for giving us permission to use his art. Tram Window Landscape storyboard © 2008 by Shaun Tan. Film © 2010 by Passion Pictures Australia and Screen Australia.

Mobilizing in the Interest of Others

A new moral political economy will revise capitalist democracy to ensure flourishing for all. Its principles derive from the recognition that humans are social animals who benefit from reciprocity and cooperation. We argue for attention to mobilizing strategies and governance arrangements that facilitate prosocial behavior and overcome the divisions—racial, political, and otherwise—that block awareness of common interests. We advocate for an expanded and inclusive community of fate whose members see their interests and destines as intertwined.

Foundations of an Expanded Community of Fate

We develop a representation of markets, states, and civil society as aspects of institutions and policies that might provide the foundations of the expanded community of fate proposed by Margaret Levi and Zachary Ugolnik. What we term our “synergy simplex” provides a language and roadmap for researching and debating the alternatives, a process that the authors (and the moral political economy project they lead) have so fruitfully launched.

Reimagining Political Economy Without “Yanking on a Thread before It’s Ready”

The world urgently needs fresh thinking about political economy. Existing paradigms have largely run their course and failed to address lingering problems. The unprecedented changes since the Industrial Revolution have created serious challenges, even as living standards have improved in societies around the world. Some emerging interdisciplinary projects help address these challenges, but further progress will become harder as societies increasingly struggle to reconcile clashing goals. Scholars and policy-makers will be best positioned to draw actionable inferences from data and history and to make lasting contributions if they focus on the importance of policy experimentation and localized knowledge, systematic thinking about multiple timeframes, responding to the needs of people still living in crushing poverty, and humility about what any single intellectual or policy paradigm can accomplish.

Governance for Human Social Flourishing

Government has become something that happens to us in service of the economy rather than a vehicle driven by us to realize what we can achieve together. To save the planet and live meaningful lives, we need to start seeing one another not as competitors but as collaborators working toward shared interests. In this essay, I propose a framework for human social flourishing to foster a public policy that rebuilds our connections and care for one another. It is based on four pillars—dignity, community, beauty, and sustainability—and emphasizes not just inclusiveness but participation, and highlights the importance of policy-making at the local level in the ­rebuilding of prosocial norms.

Author Jenna Bednar

All (Cautiously) Hail—and Scale—Community!

In her essay, Jenna Bednar makes a powerful case and sets out a persuasive framework for refocusing public policy away from the market toward “human flourishing.” In this response, I build on one of the pillars of her framework—community—to showcase its potential to promote human flourishing at scale. I show how communities can promote human flourishing not just locally, but also at the national level. And yet, a focus on the progressive power of nationalism at once also cautions against the dangers inherent in the concept of community itself: that is, that all communities are necessarily bounded and unequal. In laying bare the exclusion and violence that communities can inflict on those beyond their boundaries, and/or down the ladder of “prototypicality,” nationalism is a dark, stark reminder for all communities, including at the local level, to be consistently vigilant to both their boundaries and gradations of belonging. The task that Bednar emphasizes of building mutuality and trust within communities must proceed apace with a commitment to both expanding and building healthy relations with those beyond their boundaries, and ensuring the web of solidarity encompasses all equally within the community.

Author Prerna Singh

Power to Pursue Happiness

The Declaration of Independence lists the “pursuit of Happiness” as one of the rights that government is duty-bound to protect. Yet in the United States, decades of conservative and neoliberal policies have made that right illusory for far too many. By several metrics—economic inequality, life expectancy, and the alarming growth in so-called deaths of despair—it has become clear that the government has failed to provide most Americans with a basic level of security, much less with the chance to pursue lives of meaning and connectedness. A major reason for this failure is the distortion of the American political system, which is increasingly beholden to a small minority. We need a renaissance of civic engagement and local activism to challenge the systemic barriers to well-being, restore our democracy, and make our government attentive to public happiness in all its dimensions.

Caregiving in Philosophy, Biology & Political Economy

Caring for the young and the old, the fragile and the ill, is central to human thriving, and has played a fundamental role in human evolution. Yet care has been largely invisible in political economy and it does not fit the prevailing philosophical, political, and economic frameworks. Care typically emerges in the context of close personal relationships, and it is not well suited to either utilitarian or Kantian accounts of morality, or to “social contract” accounts of cooperation. Markets and states both have difficulty providing and supporting care, and as a result, care is overlooked and undervalued. I sketch alternative ways of thinking about the morality and politics of care and present alternative policies that could help support carers and those they care for.

Author Alison Gopnik

Care Is a Relationship

Care, defined as caregiving, should be understood as a relationship rather than an activity: a relationship of nurture and development that imbues a set of actions, or “services,” with a positive impact on the person or being that is cared for. Valuing care as part of a new moral political economy will thus require figuring out how to value relationships apart from goods and services. Moreover, care is a relationship that is grounded more in identity than reciprocity: an expansion of the self to embrace the interests of others as one’s own. From this perspective, mutuality and solidarity are just as natural an expression of the human condition as reciprocity, proceeding from identity rather than individuation.

Egalitarian Pluralism

Alison Gopnik makes a compelling case for care as a matter of social responsibility. A politics of care, however, must address who has the authority to determine the content of care, not just who pays for it. The most attractive ideological vision of a politics of care combines extensive redistribution with a pluralistic recognition of the many different arrangements through which care is provided.

Biophilic Institutions: Building New Solidarities between the Economy & Nature

Climate change and economic insecurity are the two most pressing challenges for modern humanity, and they are intimately linked: climate warming intensifies existing structural inequities, just as economic disparities worsen climate-induced suffering. Yet precisely because this economy-nature interrelationship is institutionalized, there exists an opening for alternative institutional configurations to take root. In this essay, we make the case for that institutional remaking to be biophilic, meaning it supports rather than undermines life and livelihood. This is not speculative thinking: biophilic institutions already exist in the here and now. Their existence provides an opportunity to learn how to remake institutions founded on solidarities of shared aliveness and a shared alliance with life that advance the premise that nature and the economy are not just intertwined but indistinguishable.

Biophilic Markets

Markets must be made biophilic: that is, compatible with life flourishing on Earth. To do so, we must abandon prevailing notions of market efficiency and reconceive markets as social evolutionary systems embedded in nature. Such a reconception enables us to see that constraining markets within biophysical boundaries would not result in zero-sum trade-offs with the economy, but instead would drive market evolution to new forms of prosperity.

Biophilia & Military Degrowth

This essay responds to Natasha Iskander and Nichola Lowe’s essay on the potential for biophilic institutions, lauding their focus on labor justice and the body of the worker as a route to institutional change. Using the U.S. military as an example, this response asks if all institutions can become biophilic or if some must instead be shrunk, dismantled, or radically reimagined? It goes on to consider the collateral impact of the military in terms of labor justice and environmental damage to call its biophilic potential into question.

Making Decent Jobs

On both normative and pragmatic grounds, I make a case for “decent jobs” over the current discourse around “good jobs.” I define decent jobs as ones that reflect sustained worker influence over the terms and conditions of work. Making decent jobs necessarily entails groups of workers capable of engaging strategically with firms and governments. Where will these groups come from? Changes in technology, the structure of production, and boundaries of the firm all point to profound difficulties in sustaining collective action centered on workplace relationships and identities. Networks of workers organized around mutual aid show some promise, but connecting these groups to concerted action on the shop floor implies numerous organizational and governance challenges.

Eudaimonic Jobs

John Ahlquist’s essay proposes a notion of “decent jobs” that is multidimensional, context-dependent, and dynamic. I suggest a simple test for “decent work”: work that the worker thinks is valued by people whom the worker values (a measure of exemplary virtue, hence eudaimonic). High pay in a cash society is but one such signal of value, and much labor is provided without that signal. I advocate making relationship-building, decision-making, and sheer time and care required by democratic self-government part of what we consider “decent work,” a democratic corvée we impose on ourselves.

Author Suresh Naidu

Mutual Aid as Spiritual Sustenance

The reemergence of fraternal and mutual aid structures across multiple sectors of the economy is a product of a unifying working-class cultural identity related to precarity. These experiments with collective economic self-reliance reveal what future forms of labor institutions may look like, demonstrating the transformative potential of building community through mutual care.

Supply Chains & Working Conditions During the Long Pandemic: Lessons for a New Moral Political Economy?

In recent decades, the global economy has become increasingly structured around supply chains that connect firms within and across national borders, a reliance that has been the subject of controversy in light of disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to these disruptions, firms have adapted in various ways to maintain their level of production. In this essay, we describe two approaches companies pursued during the pandemic: the “sweating” strategy in which firms shifted costs onto the worker, and the “securing” strategy in which firms chose instead to invest resources into supporting their workforce. In doing so, we argue that the companies’ respective approaches in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic reflected their long-standing management models. Furthermore, we suggest that the insights gained from examining these approaches may provide a novel perspective on how to reimagine the current political economy.

Doing Well by Doing Right

Richard Locke, Ben Armstrong, Samantha Schaab-Rozbicki, and Geordie Young speculate that COVID-related challenges might lead firms to shift their assumptions about workers in ways that open up new political-economic possibilities, with benefits for workers in safety, compensation, and voice. I am skeptical about the idea of such COVID-induced learning. Drawing on an analysis of the costs of high turnover in the electronics supply chain, however, I argue that more generous assumptions about workers appear to have operational benefits. Understanding those operational benefits might lead firms to be less resistant to demands from workers for the kinds of jobs that Locke and his coauthors celebrate.

Author Joshua Cohen

Unchaining Workers

An influential report on protecting the medical supply chain in the next pandemic fails to include a commitment to protecting the workers who protect the supply chain. The securing strategy outlined by Richard Locke, Ben Armstrong, Samantha Schaab-Rozbicki, and Geordie Young offers examples of such an approach, and the analytical framework for protecting the chain—awareness, mitigation, preparedness, and response—can be applied equally well to the workforce. Considerations of equity and fairness should lead us to unchain the workers strung along the chain of medical and consumer supplies.

Author Alta Charo

Identity Group Stratification, Political Economy & Inclusive Economic Rights

This essay demonstrates the necessity of formally incorporating identity group stratification as a pillar alongside economic and political understandings of any political economy framework. We make our case by juxtaposing mutual inadequacies and myopic limitations associated with two influential but polar political economy frameworks—Marxian and public choice theory—since neither framework formally incorporates an identity group stratification lens beyond class reductionism. Finally, in addition to presenting an identity group stratification lens to economic thought, we present an Inclusive Economic Rights policy framework as a critical baseline component of human rights, foregrounding political economic tendencies toward identity group stratifications as a pathway forward to achieve a “moral political economy.”

Reducing the Transactional Value of Identity & Race

Grieve Chelwa, Darrick Hamilton, and Avi Green explain how existing accounts of capitalism systematically neglect racial identity group stratification. Their approach points to an important comparative dimension and two significant research agendas that could supplement their arguments. First would be to inquire into the role that equal respect plays in pushing back against stratification. Second would be to investigate how other aspects of social norms may have consequences too, perhaps drawing insights from a new body of research on racial stratification that draws upon Marxian and neoclassical economics.

Neoliberal Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for (Some) Economists to Talk about Racism

Grieve Chelwa, Darrick Hamilton, and Avi Green offer a vision of stratification economics in which social identities interact with multiple forms of domination to reproduce inequality over time. A far cry from the individualism inherent in traditional economic theory, Chelwa, Hamilton, and Green illustrate how the market-­choice moorings of neoliberalism—intentionally or not—have weakened efforts to challenge structural racism and argue that a strategy of “inclusive economic rights” offers a way both to understand difference and embrace commonality. Since, as Marx noted, “the task is not just to understand the world but to change it,” I stress how social movements can build the power to make such rights real and forge the intersectional bridges to make mutuality our new economic anchor.

Author Manuel Pastor

Democracy & “Noxious” Markets

How should a new political economy conceive of the role of markets in a just society? Markets clearly play an important role in efficiently allocating labor and goods, disseminating information, enabling cooperation among people who disagree with one another about how to live, and allowing individuals’ choices about where to direct their talents and resources. But acknowledging that markets play an important role does not mean that this role is simple or conforms to the status quo in capitalist countries like the United States. In this essay, I draw on classical and modern ideas to defend a limited role for markets that is tempered by democratic concerns.

Author Debra Satz

Is There a Proper Scope for Markets?

Debra Satz’s brilliant essay highlights that it is insufficient to study markets in terms of efficiency and potential market failures, as they have deep effects on people and societies. This line of thought could inspire the project of building a general theory of social interactions, in which the specific properties of market transactions would be identified, and their influence on society at large, depending on the surrounding institutions and social structure, could be understood. In this brief essay, personal care provides an example of the complex ramifications of different arrangements for social interactions.

How Should We Govern Housing Markets in a Moral Political Economy?

Building on Debra Satz’s argument that we can design our way out of noxious markets, this essay shifts toward questions of process, paying particular attention to the constraints posed when noxious markets generate supportive political constituencies. Using the case of U.S. housing policy, I make two claims. First, even intentional efforts at using market design to harness the capacities Satz identifies can produce cross-cutting effects, strengthening democracies on some dimensions and weakening them on others. Second, noxious markets can generate supportive constituencies that may undermine reform efforts. Ultimately, a moral housing market requires political supports that can help to broaden communities of fate, build political capacities of those who are persistently underrepresented in local deliberations, and encourage participants to reflect on the consequences of market design.

Moral Firms?

Building a new political economy requires transforming our markets, our institutions, and our policy and regulatory regimes. In this essay, I argue that it also requires transforming the purpose of the firm: from a singular focus on maximizing financial returns to the recognition that firms exist to support human flourishing, with profits merely a means to an end. I suggest that this transformation is already under way and indeed that it may help support fundamental change in the wider society, but that significant shifts in law, policy, and in the social and normative context are almost certainly essential if this new model is to become the norm.

Are Moral Firms Committed Firms?

Corporate purpose is everywhere, but will it stay? Is it a business revolution or a passing fad, destined to go the way of so many business concepts? Reliance on the good judgment and goodwill of corporate leaders is a justifiable cause for concern, and resort is often sought instead in the apparently safe harbor of public regulation. But reliance should not be placed on governments and regulators alone to constrain the corporate giants in the face of a system that motivates abusive behavior. Instead, attention should be devoted to alignment of the intrinsic interests of corporations with those of society more generally.

Author Colin Mayer

Can Firms Act Morally?

The firm is a critical actor in the formation of a new moral political economy, but firm structure, culture, and profits can be an obstacle to change. The case of the American technology industry demonstrates the limits of relying on firms to change from within. The widespread practice of awarding stock ties white-collar compensation to corporate performance and curtails employee activism. The high-tech venture capital model measures success using rapid return on investment and acquisition of market share. Corporate governance practices and dual-class shares give founder-CEOs outsized control and entrench existing business models, even when they have damaging downstream consequences. The trajectory of these purportedly purpose-driven companies indicates that, as in the past, regulation may be the most effective path to meaningful corporate reform.  

The Moral Economy of High-Tech Modernism

While people in and around the tech industry debate whether algorithms are political at all, social scientists take the politics as a given, asking instead how this politics unfolds: how algorithms concretely govern. What we call “high-tech modernism”—the application of machine learning algorithms to organize our social, economic, and political life—has a dual logic. On the one hand, like traditional bureaucracy, it is an engine of classification, even if it categorizes people and things very differently. On the other, like the market, it provides a means of self-adjusting allocation, though its feedback loops work differently from the price system. Perhaps the most important consequence of high-tech modernism for the contemporary moral political economy is how it weaves hierarchy and data-gathering into the warp and woof of everyday life, replacing visible feedback loops with invisible ones, and suggesting that highly mediated outcomes are in fact the unmediated expression of people’s own true wishes.

The Structuring Work of Algorithms

Algorithms reflect how power is arranged within our society while also producing power dynamics themselves. Algorithmic systems configure power by engaging in network-making, thereby shaping society and entrenching existing logics into infrastructure. To understand the moral economy of high-tech modernism, we must explore how algorithmic systems contribute to ongoing social, political, and economic structuring. This essay reflects on the importance of algorithmic systems’ positions within our political, economic, and social arrangements.

Author danah boyd

High-Tech Modernism: Limits & Extensions

High-tech modernism is a powerful construct for reading the broad range of effects of digitalization on society. This response to Henry Farrell and Marion Fourcade’s essay “The Moral Economy of High-Tech Modernism” first notes that high-tech modernism seems initially specified for application to advanced, quasi-liberal political economies. It then identifies three dimensions along which that construct could usefully be extended: 1) to take account of the limits of machine learning techniques of data analysis; 2) to consider the manner in which algorithmic digitalization transforms both the content and the management of work; and 3) to examine political responses to high-tech modernism, reminiscent of Karl Polanyi’s “double movement,” increasingly observable across a spectrum that runs from competition policy to the labor market.

Governance Archaeology: Research as Ancestry

This essay presents the idea of governance archaeology, an approach to learning from the past to inform the politics of the future. By reporting on a prototype historical database, we outline a strategy for co-producing a global commons of collective governance practices that can inspire institutional learning and experimentation, particularly in the face of rapid technological change and vexing global crises. Embedded in our approach is an orientation of ancestry whereby practitioners cultivate relationships of accountability and responsibility to the legacies they learn from, recognizing the harm from past patterns of exploitation. By taking seriously a wide range of historical governance practices, particularly those outside the Western canon, governance archaeology seeks to expand the options available for the design of more moral political economies.

Taking Responsibility for Tomorrow: Remaking Collective Governance as Political Ancestors

In learning from older and past collective governance practices, we must design new institutions with an ethos that underscores our roles not only as descendants from past innovators but also as ancestors who have a responsibility to provide such legacies for the future. Governance archaeology can only realize its full moral and generative potential when it is practiced in a way that acknowledges our responsibility to future humans as well as past ones. This essay thus argues for the need to include future humans in the “we” of collective governance for distributive equity as well as procedural justice.

Author Lily L. Tsai

In Search of Ontologies of Entanglement

We live in a world of entanglement, not enlightenment. We discuss why the two are not collapsible. Then, in search of concepts, methods, and sources for a frame of entanglement, we look at how an ontological turn in the social sciences helps us see the relationship between worldviews, values, and the complex practices of how societies enact their worlds, with an eye to those worldviews that assume, live, and enact entanglement. Finally, we offer some thoughts on moving beyond theory to action. Stimulated by the critical themes in Federica Carugati and Nathan Schneider’s essay, and believing that “it matters what concepts we use to think concepts with,” we interrogate and expand on their themes to widen the conceptual aperture around the call for remaking our systems of governance.