Martin Buber On The Social Future

Martin Buber in the “He-Atid” bookstore in Jerusalem, 1946 (Martin Buber Archives).

While reviewing early Schumacher Center newsletters, we found this April 1985 reminder of Martin Buber’s contribution to new economic/social thinking.

Buber On The Social Future

We came to trust Martin Buber for his careful record of the human spirit in its process of observing itself in relation to the universe. In his book I And Thou, Buber was able to sustain and explore the simultaneous experiences of observer and observed. Commenting on the languages of “primitive” peoples in which the separation of the “I” and the “thou” was not yet as sharpened, Buber writes: “The Feugian (language) surpasses our analytical wisdom with a sentence-word of seven syllables that literally means: ‘they look at each other, each waiting for the other to offer to do that which both desire but neither wishes to do.’”*

We came to love Martin Buber for his wonderful retellings of old Hasidic tales, the world of sense perception and the world of imagination blending, separating and then coloring each other again.

Only recently did we discover Buber’s social writings. His Paths in Utopia is a concise history of decentralist-cooperative thinking. He discusses Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, Marx, Proudhon, Kropotkin and Landauer among others (see New Economic Thought Timeline) and is quickly able to come to the essence of the writer’s contribution, finding and naming the vision that moved each one. But while describing these other social thinkers, Buber is at the same time tracing his own path, his own vision of a new social order.

A recurring theme in the book is that of “Associations” — free associations of producers and consumers who together out of their mutual interest determine production and quantity and distribution. Buber sees these associations as small in scale and regional, or land based, and so of necessity there is an element of self-sufficiency in their planning. Buber suggests that the limited and vying interests of the producer against the consumer can only shape a limited and vying future. He points again to the simultaneous experience, to our mutual interests as both producers and consumers. It is in this simultaneity that individuals meet at a larger social level and feel their communality. It is a vision of local control of local resources and manufacturing and of participation in decisions by those effected by those decisions.

Paraphrasing the school of Fourier, Buber writes: “Only through these voluntary associations will the third and last emancipatory phase of history come about in which the first having made serfs out of slaves, and the second wage earners out of serfs, the third will accomplish the transformation of wage earners into companions or associates.”* Buber’s elaboration of the concept of producer/consumer associations is bold and useful.

Robyn Van En and farm workers distributing the week’s CSA shares. Photo by Clemens Kalischer.

It is this same recognition of the transformative power of consumers and producers working together that led Robyn Van En to shape the Community Supported Agriculture movement. It is also this same recognition that led the Schumacher Center staff to coin the term Community Supported Industry that would have consumers and producers co-creating new import-replacement businesses, sharing the risk to ensure the future character of their local economies.