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Systems of Survival

A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics

by Jane Jacobs

236 pages, paperback, Vintage Press, 1994

In Systems of Survival, Jacobs addresses the moral values that underpin public life. Written in the form of a dialogue, Systems of Survival identifies two distinct public moral syndromes--one governing commerce, the other, politics.

Praise for Systems of Survival

"[With] piercing analysis, crystalline prose and [a] finely- honed sense of morality, Jacobs covers an amazing amount of ground."--Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Superb . . . Cobbling together a little urban anthropology, a little economic history, and a vast store of highly nuanced personal observation . . . Jacobs is an indispensable provocateur."--Village Voice Literary Supplement

Quotes from Systems of Survival

"Relieved to see all four on the appointed morning, Armbruster expansively showed off his new coffee maker, which managed its own heating, and fiddled with this tape recorder while Kate passed out typed sheets.

" ' You can keep these in front of you for reference,' she said. 'I'll explain later why I call them syndromes.' She paused as they glanced down the lists.

Shun force
Come to voluntary agreements
Be honest
Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
Respect contracts
Use initiative and enterprise
Be open to inventiveness and novelty
Be efficient
Promote comfort and convenience
Dissent for the sake of the task
Invest for productive purposes
Be industrious
Be thrifty
Be optimistic

Shun trading
Exert prowess
Be obedient and disciplined
Adhere to tradition
Respect hierarchy
Be loyal
Take vengeance
Deceive for the sake of the task
Make rich use of leisure
Be ostentatious
Dispense largesse
Be exclusive
Show fortitude
Be fatalistic
Treasure honor

"Jasper was the first to speak. 'This is mystifying. Why are you presenting us with two sets of morals? And look how they dispute each other! What are you up to? This makes no sense.'

" 'I realize these lists aren't self-explanatory,' said Kate, 'But give me a chance to explain. That's what I intend--'

"Before she could finish her sentence, Ben burst in. 'This advice, or whatever it's supposed to be, is immoral! What do you mean, 'Promote comfort and convenience'? We're already destroying the planet with that behavior!' He ran his finger down the sheet. 'Be ostentatious!' He looked up. 'Have we been dragged here to praise consumerism?'

"'Hear me out,' said Kate. 'I promise this isn't frivolous. Armbruster, you're right. It's possible to explain a lot with these two lists. What was it you said about governments running businesses badly? These lists gave me a handle on that. Other things surprised me--like where does art come from, and how come agriculture gets so many subsidies but it's in perpetual crisis anyhow, and when industriousness is vicious. If we dig into these precepts further than I've been able to so far, they may explain a lot.'"

. . .

"'I found one!' said Ben triumphantly.

"' One what?' asked Armbruster. They had assembled again at breakfast.

"'Don't you remember? You asked us to keep our eyes open for the right kind of tinkering. You said we hadn't reached the end of the line in what we could make of these syndromes, or what they could do for us, as long as we watched our step and didn't make hash of them. I found a new banking invention. You won't believe this, coming from me, but I like it.'

"' Me, too,' said Kate. 'I turned up a pretty splendid example. A new kind of commercial function in harmony with the commercial syndrome. A new way for carrying on business, no less.'

"'Good, this is very gratifying,' said Armbruster. 'You sound as if you've taken it seriously that these syndromes aren't so rigid as to afford no scope for ingenuity and improvements--as long as the ingenuities stay within moral bounds. Since you're so full of your discoveries along those lines, let's hear them before Hortense's report on managing commercial-guardian symbiosis without mutual corruption. So: syndrome-friendly ingenuities. You first, Ben.'

"I ran into this up in western Massachusetts two weeks ago. I was there to give a talk, and I heard about a fellow who's logging with horses for people who don't want roads and machinery tearing up their woodlots. Everybody's happy with him and he has all the work he can handle. He told me he was able to get established because of a two-thousand dollar loan from SHARE.

"' That stands for Self-Help Association for a Regional Economy. He introduced me to its founders, Susan Witt and Bob Swann. Did you know banks can't afford to make loans of a few thousand dollars? They take about as much work as big loans and they don't bring in enough interest to pay the bank for its work.'

"'Hortense interrupted. 'My bank's got a glossy little new leaflet every month begging me to take out a car loan or finance my lovely tropical vacation with their convenient credit card.'

"'That's different,' said Armbruster. 'Car loans are standardized, and besides, the bank can routinely sell them off in batches to an acceptance corporation and get its money back. It's much the same, by the way, with loans for standardized chain businesses like franchised fast-food outlets. All that' assembly-line banking. To issue a credit card, the bank merely checks whether you have blots on your credit rating. Even that work's been reduced nowadays. Some of them put you into a computer and check whether you fit a stereotyped profile of who gives trouble and who doesn't. Very unfair, by the way, like all stereotyped profiles. But Ben's right about unroutinized small businesses. Or medium-sized ones, too. You'll have better luck if you can use a loan of a hundred million than a hundred thousand.'

" Ben resumed his story. 'Bob Swann and Susan Witt, the founders, are New Yorkers who moved out to the country years ago. They noticed farm kids usually had to leave the area when they finished school, whether they wanted to or not. So few jobs. They also noticed neighbors who had skills for going into business, like the horse logger, but no money to launch themselves.'

"' Why didn't people like that take out credit cards?' asked Hortense. 'The logger could have raised two thousand dollars on a credit card.'

"' The interest rates are too high when every penny counts,' Kate put in. 'Some manage by juggling half a dozen cards, but for a struggling little business, that's flirting with bankruptcy. Why don't they use credit cards? Hortense, that's like asking why don't they eat cake.'"

. . .

"Hortense suddenly spoke up with excitement. 'These inventions could lead to a new stage of democracy. They amount to democratization of access to business capital. Democratizations don't happen by themselves. They need inventions. Political democracy needed inventions: elections, contending parties with protection for political loses so their opposition could continue to be heard, ballots . . . The invention of public libraries democratized access to literature, and invention of publicly supported schools democratized access to education. Invention of cheap but pretty and fashionable clothes, and shampoos and cosmetics, and affordable dentistry and remedial surgery for some birth defects, and so on, democratized access to personal attractiveness.'

"'That's in line with what Yunus thinks,' said Kate. 'He believes access to business credit is a basic human right. He wants the United Nations to recognize it. As things are now, entire groups of people whose members lack access to business credit are locked into poverty and the underclass.'"

Table of Contents of Systems of Survival

  1. Armbruster's Summons
  2. A Pair of Contradictions
  3. Kate on the Commercial Syndrome
  4. Why Two Syndromes?
  5. Jasper and Kate on the Guardian Syndrome
  6. Trading, Taking, and Monstrous Hybrids
  7. Anomalies
  8. Casts of Mind
  9. Armbruster on Systemic Moral Corruption
  10. Syndrome-Friendly Inventions
  11. Hortense on Casts and Flexibility
  12. Pitfalls of Methods
  13. Hortense's Defense of Moral Flexibility
  14. Plans and Champagne
    Appendix: The Commercial and Guardian Moral Syndromes

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