David Foster Wallace tells this story; “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the heck is water?”
The basic premise of “An Other Kingdom” by Walter Brueggemann, Peter Block & John McKnight is that the consumer kingdom – what they call the Free Market Consumer Ideology – is the water we are swimming in and don’t even realize it.
What makes this book so challenging is that it questions our entire worldview – and does not do so gently. The authors don’t take time and develop nuances. They simply get out the jackhammer and start tearing things apart. And for this reason I think most readers will have a defensive reaction when reading it (possibly even this summary) – it is only upon reflection that anyone might start to consider the truth behind the arguments.
The basic premise is we have come to fully accept what the authors call the Free Market Consumer Ideology in our lives and society. We believe there should be very few constraints on individuals and institutions. We should be free to do business as it suits us. How we buy and sell is a first priority. Our ability to acquire things, sell things, and make money is of utmost concern and needs to be defended with force if necessary. Our capacity to purchase is a measure of our individual and corporate success.
Economic activity has become the first priority of most individuals, institutions, and nations. We have lost a sense of “neighbourliness” and the sense of working for the common good. It is my (or, in the case of a nation, our) economic well-being that is crucial – not the collective well-being. The public/common good has been replaced with concern for private/individual rights and as a result we begin to think in terms of scarcity, speed, certainty, and perfection.
Scarcity is the belief there is never enough to go around. The market values what is scarce and so economies are created to control supplies both to increase pricing (revenues) or to ration what exists because it is thought there isn’t enough to go around. When this is done, we must compete to determine the winners and success is measured by being able to obtain ____ (insert whatever). No matter how much we obtain, it is never enough because there is always someone else with something we desire and can’t have.
Certainty and perfection promise a world of predictability and safety. Every “problem” can be solved if we just strive hard enough to find an answer. As a result we can remove surprise from our lives. Not knowing what will happen tomorrow or the next day is something we cannot tolerate and so we create systems to manage as much uncertainty as we possibly can. Faith and trust are removed from our daily lives.
Speed is key. We want to get things done as quickly as possible and so “I have no time” has become one of the biggest barriers to creating the relationships that result in care for one’s neighbours.
Opposed to these realities of the Free Market Consumer Ideology are the neighbourly beliefs in abundance, mystery, fallibility, and grief.
To believe in abundance is to believe we have enough. We can stop concerning ourselves with a pursuit for more than we need and instead look for ways to ensure the community (our neighbourhood for example) has enough for everyone to be cared for. This will mean we need to stop being so concerned with “more” and instead be satisfied with “enough”.
Mystery is what happens when you can’t be sure of what will happen. There is no contract to provide legal recourse, there is only the promise of the people around you. Mystery opens the doors for ideas and creativity, but it does not allow you to be certain of what will happen next. It is like being placed in the middle of a story — you know the quality of the characters, but what will be written next is not yet known.
An understanding of fallibility means we recognize that perfection is not possible; that mistakes are a natural part of life. There are some “problems” that simply can’t be solved and rather than stressing about finding a solution, we should move ahead with things as they are. Because we can’t solve everything, all we can do is grieve when something doesn’t go as we hoped … this is not something popular in today’s world.
The book’s critique only gets more pointed as the authors make points such as the following:
- “Surplus in the form of profit has become the sole criterion of value. It has become the point — even if nothing is produced in the process.”
- “What we once called usury is now called good business … many businesses make more money on financing the customer purchase than on the product itself.”
- “Our technology-supported lives have now become so convenient that we experience the practices of neighbourliness as being greatly inconvenient.”
- “In the high-tech world, speed is God and time is the devil. Speed becomes a value in itself, a measure of success … the market engine does everything it can to overcome the time it takes nature to make something grow … the usual argument against the neighbourly way is that we don’t have time for that. We have no time to be with our neighbour. Time has become the incarnation of scarcity.”
- “The free market consumer ideology assumption is that we want larger portions of everything that is so unsatisfying.”
The goal outlined in the book is to introduce readers to the fact this “Free Market Consumer Ideology” is a worldview — and one we do not have to buy into. We can replace the dominant narrative of our culture with one from “an other kingdom” that sees the neighbourly covenant as the framework from which we should live our lives. One that sees the common good and care for one’s neighbour as higher priority than individual rights.
This new, “other kingdom” worldview is one that values time, silence, listening, and care for the common good above many of the core values we currently see as essential. It would be a drastic shift were we to take it and the authors openly admit that our world is not currently ready for such a drastic shift. They do; however, point out the many local, community organizations that are cropping up around the world that attempt to shift local economies toward a focus on keeping wealth in the community and re-circulating within rather than being sent outward to a large corporation. They indicate that they see this book as a prophetic call that may not be possible for 10-50 years, but that we should begin to notice the “signs of the times” and begin to re-orient our lives around things that matter and that promote neighbourliness.
While shocking and slightly terrifying, it is a book that will stick with me for some time.
This is water!