The Elimination of ‘Magical Thinking’ in Activism: John McMurtry and the Life- Value Onto-Axiology

There is a growing awareness worldwide that current socioeconomic structures are destroying life and the planet at an ever-increasing pace. At the same time there is general confusion as to the methodology and philosophical-economic-political framework which could be used to reverse this destruction. Despite the fact that the current bodies for politics, justice, and social services are increasingly exposed as being influenced by the interests of powerful financial institutions, people continue to appeal to leaders in those arenas, even when no thorough or long-term success is achieved.

Fortunately, a growing number of people are investigating various forms of sustainable industry, open-source networking, and a resource-based economy which includes the elimination of money and trade-structures as an immediate or long-term goal. The definitive work done by Jacques Fresco through his Venus Project as well as the continuing work done by Peter Joseph and the Zeitgeist Movement are the two most well-known and extensive examples. Both replace the ad hoc regulation of resource management effected by the so-called free market of neoliberal capitalism with the use and distribution of resources based on a holistic calculation of the necessities of life and the ability of life, i.e. the planet, to support them. They argue that money and a debt-based/scarcity economy is outdated because scientific and technological development has reached a level at which an abundance of the basic necessities for all people can be provided. At the same time, automation is freeing people from repetitive work and can allow everybody to develop themselves to the highest expression of their intellect and talents.

This all sounds very attractive, and is definitely the direction in which socioeconomic change should proceed. One issue, however, that is regularly presented by those questioning the viability of a Resource Based Economy (RBE) is about the decision-making process. They ask what guarantees there are that the goals of an RBE will not be undermined by any remnants of the selfish, power-hungry, egotistical ‘human nature’ that has corrupted the decision makers in the past. People quite correctly wonder who will decide on the distribution of goods and how it will be decided if money is taken out of the equation.

Fresco and others have stated that decisions will no longer be in the hands of individuals, whose insight may be compromised by any number of ‘human’ variables, but will be made by computers and Artificial Intelligence (AI). For those not immediately plunged into fearful denial by images of a society ruled by robots such as those in films like The Terminator, the next question is, of course, who will program and what programs will be installed in these computers. While the response made by RBE activists is that algorithms employing a holistic application of the scientific method are to be used, the fact remains that humans will do that work. Without a precise description of how individual bias can be removed from any such programming or decision-making, some people still may remain unconvinced.

The problem is, of course, conditioning. Activists bemoan the pervasive conditioning people undergo that engenders sheep-like support for the neoliberal, capitalist influence on society which is actually the root-cause for all the ‘symptoms’ of societal dis-ease. As Peter Joseph points out in The New Human Rights Movement, the current socioeconomic system is the main factor in the perversion of human relationships and culture while it also gives rise to structural bigotry and destructive public health conditions. Yet those working towards transforming the current paradigm often underestimate the influence this self-same programming may have on their own thinking. That is the reason a comprehensive system for the analysis of conditions and the making of decisions needs to be established before any transformation towards an RBE is possible. This system will need to incorporate a scientific measurement of value which supports life instead of profit or property.

In that sense, John McMurtry’s Life Value Axiom provides the ‘missing link’ in RBE theory. With the inclusion of his Axiom, an RBE has the empirical basis for the transformation of the socioeconomic paradigm rather than some kind of ‘magical thinking’ which previous theories of governance have always included.

The term ‘magical thinking’ refers to the assumptions in those various systems that human life will somehow improve within the said system without actually providing a concrete basis for ensuring this improvement. From the ‘invisible hand’ of the so-called free market, which states that balance in supply and demand of goods will provide conditions for prosperity, to the reassignment of ownership under Marxism and the mysterious workings of dialectical materialism, which again will somehow transform society, the positive change promised by new forms of governance is implied without there being any actual function explicitly guaranteeing it. As McMurtry puts it:

Marx and Marxists have never provided life-value criteria to explain or to bridge the three levels of life-and-death issue which are skipped over here: (1) why seizure of the state from capitalist control is ensured against the systematic life-blindness of the order it grows out of; (2) what collective life-values there are to guide this state rule and its productive force development beyond more material output as an end in itself; and (3) how human life needs and capacities are to be enabled and fulfilled by this program as assumed, rather than distorted or imprisoned by it.”

The same must not be said about a reliance on science and technology under a Resource Based Economy. An RBE must include a framework based on the value of Life in order to give rise to the wonderful community of abundance it has up until now most definitely implied but not explicitly outlined.

McMurtry is an esteemed academic, not an activist, and his work is written for other academics. This makes his work somewhat inaccessible for those less inclined to reading long treatises. With that in mind, I would like to share a few points which I feel are important for activists to appreciate and include in their strategy for change.

1. Life-value analysis is based on the establishment of a universal criterion, that of life necessity or NEED

2. A NEED (N) is something that results in a reduction in the capacity of life if there is a deprivation of it (for instance, life capacity is reduced if one is deprived of clean water, fresh air, loving relationships, etc.)

3. The N-value that is reached by a scientifically verifiable life-value allows for endless degrees and choices. Thus the need for food can be satisfied in the form of fish and beans, or by fruits and vegetables, or meat and potatoes as long as the organic need for a complement of nutritional sources is satisfied. Nobody thus “decides for others” using this analysis. At the same time, junk food can clearly be seen to have no N-value and does, in fact, reduce life capacities through obesity, high sugar and salt levels, etc.

4. Some needs are more easily identifiable than others. Air, water and food are clearly necessary within a short-term time framework, whereas deprivation of communicative culture and life vocation reduces life capacities in the long term.

With the recognition of long-term needs, the human desire to perform work which benefits others becomes a life-value. Thus, when people pose the question about the incentive people will have to work in an RBE without money, i.e. symbol of value, McMurtry’s system responds with the freedom to pursue one’s true vocation, which results in life value.

Although a gross oversimplification of the entire framework, I would like to provide the following excerpts from Human Rights versus Corporate Rights: Life Value, the Civil Commons and Social Justice by John McMurtry, which was posted by Project Sanity Online (

“Life-value understanding therefore proposes a meta shift of rights towards each person’s right of access to a universal human life good rather than being confined within the now ruling legal concept of merely private rights to exclude all others from whatever is held… Each (of the following rights) denotes …:

(i) a universal good which is

(ii) also a universal life necessity, and

(iii) holds across individuals and cultures

(iv) if and only if, and

(v) to the extent that,

(vi) deprivation of N

(vii) always results in reduction of life capacity.

We will designate (i) to (v) the N-axiom.”

From this rule, McMurtry identifies seven rights that apply universally across individuals and cultures and that are needed to preserve and/or improve life capacity. These are:

  • “the atmospheric goods of unpolluted air, sunlight, climate cycles, and seeing- hearing space;
  • the bodily goods of clean water, nourishing food, fit clothing, and waste disposal;
  • the home good of shelter from the elements and noxious animals/materials with the means to sleep and freely function;
  • the environmental good of natural and constructed elements contributing to a life- supporting whole;
  • the social goods of reliable care through time by supportive love, work-day limits/safety, accessible healthcare, and security of person;
  • the cultural goods of language, the arts, participant civil rights, and play; and
  • the vocational good of enabling and obliging each to contribute to the provision of these universal life goods consistent with the enjoyment of.”

By applying the life-value axiom to questions of distribution and contribution, McMurtry also eliminates three faults to the general principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”:

  • “’Needs’ themselves have remained without definition and bound. Thus damaging habits conceived as needs may qualify as benefits, leading to disabling consequences and
  • The “ability” expected from each is not grounded in human life capacities Thus dehumanizing use of abilities can be obliged “from each,” allowing for distortion of the underlying life capacities they express.
  • There is no principled linkage between needs and abilities to ensure the coherence of their realization. Thus the ancient division between the unequal abilities and needs of people still remains.

With no defined criteria of its burden-benefit sides to solve (1) to (3), the from- each/to-each principle remains only a resonant slogan without directive substance… Karl Marx…affirmed “need” growth with no limit…Ironically capitalist economics since Marx have assumed non-satiety of wants as the first premise of market growth. In this way, Marx and bourgeois economics agree on perhaps the most ruinous assumption of modern thought. Life-value onto-axiology adopts an opposite stand. It recognizes as needs only goods without which life capacities are reduced.”

Further in the essay, McMurtry describes the importance of the decisive value of the “civil commons”, that is, the infrastructure providing the necessities of life-value throughout society, such as electricity, water, sanitation, healthcare, education. This civil commons must be removed from the hands of individuals seeking personal profit. It is the foundation upon which a Resource Based Economy will be able to establish conditions for a life of abundance in harmony with the rest of life.

One of the most admirable aspects of McMurtry’s structure for assessing Life-Value is that it removes the influence of prejudices based on culture, education, or background that may cause individuals to impose their own values on others as a so-called universal value. This would free the decision-making process in an RBE from any one school of thought — whether it be a form of science, religion, tribalism, philosophy, or nutrition — to assume that its perspective is the only perspective. Only by incorporating a framework which safeguards the proliferation of diversity within holistic unification will an RBE be able to build a future society which overcomes the faults of previous social experiments.

At the end of his essay, McMurtry points out the reality of the political juncture at which the world currently stands.

“Life-value analysis recognizes that there is not one modern state, but two warring states within one: the now dominant state to grow private corporations and commodity markets at whatever cost to life capacities and their support systems versus public government to serve the common life interest of universal life goods for human life capacities for more people at more levels. In the defining lines of this still preconscious world war, the backwards or forward transformation of human society is decided. Without recognition of its life-and-death stakes and inner logic, there is no hope beyond political rhetoric. For on the make-or-break level of public funding and taxation, government functions and expenditures are increasingly structured to subsidize private-profit interests towards bankrupting public government itself, and thus also the possibility of social justice. We are already at this pass now.”

It should be clear to every thinking person that a change in socioeconomic structures is necessary in the very short term. However, as an academic McMurtry does not describe the actual method for changing the situation. Whereas McMurtry makes abundantly clear the need to “contest” the “global financial faction”, he seems to imply that this needs be done by political bodies who “magically” adopt his excellent life-value analysis and axiom. Yet just as he questions Marxism’s claim that the powers of production will cause workers to overcome their conditioning and“discipline, unite, (and) organize” them into fighters for revolutionary self-determination and freedom, I question the power of all the excellent (academic) work done by McMurtry and others to motivate political bodies to transform the socioeconomic structures they represent.

That task most probably will befall the activists working towards the intelligent and humane management of resources. Thankfully, for our work, McMurtry’s analysis and axiom provides the essential basis needed for turning ideas into reality.