Potentialism: A Socioeconomic Model for Peace

By Caitlin Barker

Although people have studied and debated the merits of competing socioeconomic models throughout history, few can claim to have founded their own. Ross Gray (ΦBK, San Francisco State University) and Theresa Ruby are the founders of potentialism, a new socioeconomic model that they recently used to help warring factions in Nepal reach an end to a civil war that killed more than 15,000 people. 

After reading their books on potentialism, an economic development professor in Nepal invited them to come lend their skills to the peace process. It was 2009, and the situation did not look promising. Having ousted the monarchy, the country had broken into a civil war that lasted a decade, and despite a five-year cease fire, Maoist rebels still maintained a heavily-armed force of approximately 19,000 soldiers positioned throughout the country. Unable to reach a peace deal, the UN was closing their mission, and the country was in danger of breaking back into open warfare when Gray and Ruby arrived. 

“We were invited to come, and we were a little shocked,” said Gray in an interview, “if everybody else had been there, we didn’t think there was probably much we could do.” Nevertheless, they accepted the invitation and met extensively with the leaders of each faction, becoming neutral political advisors to each side and establishing a dialogue that continued even after they returned to the United States. By recognizing the positive things that each side had already done, Gray and Ruby were able to speak frankly with them about the unresolved problems. And by focusing on the commonalities between the groups, they drew on one of the central tenets of potentialism.

Gray and Ruby describe potentialism as an inclusive socioeconomic model that “does not have any enemies.” Consisting of two main facets, social and economic potentialism, its fundamental goal is to improve the lives of all people around the world by helping them recognize their potential and the forces that serve as obstacles to their growth. Gray and Ruby credit their liberal arts education with helping them understand the connections between different perspectives and schools of thought, something that lies at the core of potentialism. “We think that our work is liberal arts,” Gray said. “We don’t think that we would have gotten to this position if we didn’t have liberal arts backgrounds.”

Economic potentialism seeks to combine the creativity and productivity of capitalism with the social consciousness of socialism, and recognizes that because our most basic needs are economic, these must be met before major social and political improvements are possible. Although they believe economic potentialism to be applicable in any country, at the moment it is particularly well-suited to the developing world. “Until they can have food, clothing, and shelter, it’s a world of have and have-nots, and those are the kinds of things that lead to anger and war,” observed Ruby. With this in mind, Gray and Ruby are currently focusing their work in Nepal on the economy, so as to better enable the young democracy to thrive. 

Social potentialism focuses on finding the commonalities between people that can help them overcome their differences, and teaches that we all have more potential than we can ever fulfill. Gray noted that the emphasis on commonalities sets potentialism apart from most other political and economic models. “In some ways, it’s a liability, because movements throughout history have been able to rally their people by identifying their enemy. And we don’t have an enemy, so it’s a little bit harder to rally people to the concept of commonalities.” 

One of the ways Gray and Ruby hope to spread potentialism is through GlobalHouse, a non-profit they founded with the intention of providing a support network for people around the world. Although still in its early phases, there is already a chapter in Nepal and they hope that more will open soon on campuses and in communities around the world. “It’s not enough to have a great concept,” said Gray, “You have to have some way for people to engage in it.” 

For more information about GlobalHouse and potentialism, visit http://globalhouse.org/.

Caitlin Barker is a senior at Kenyon College majoring in political science.  Kenyon College is home to the Beta of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.