The Orthogonal turn

Image credit: All my own fault, except for the lovely heads, stolen from a cartooning tutorial by Nsio.

The recent heavy defeat of the UK Labour Party (after it offered a left-leaning manifesto that honourably tried to avoid populism) removes the last non-European heavyweight from the post-war consensus.

Johnson joins Trump, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, Erdogan, Duterte, Modi and the rest of the gang in a mutually supportive loose cabal of populist neo-feudalists with crypto fascist instincts.

That’s it for post-war leftist progressivism. Game over.

Of course, you can move to Northern Europe to live in a nice bubble, but that bubble is now isolated, shrinking and fragile.

The promise of social democracy has been at best suborned, at worst exposed as an analysis-lite, magical thinking project that somehow thought it could soften capitalism up without becoming authoritarian.

The Situationists, of course, nailed this idea in the ’50s, but were mostly ignored, and in any case were sadly short of constructive propositions.

So, what should anyone do who is interested in saving civilisation from the destruction that the apotheosis of late capitalism is about to unleash?

Number 1: eschew left wing politics, unless you want to waste your life. This coming period may not last as long as the Thatcher/Reagan period of neo-liberalism (1979–2008), as the omnicrises of climate change, debt, demographics et al will impose more urgent and insistent external dynamics than politicians of that era had to contend with (they were able to deploy tactics and analyses developed and matured over the period of the long boom, and were only overset by novel conditions of financial instability which they themselves had ushered in). 

But of a certainty the progressive Social Democratic Left is a spent force, utterly enmeshed in its outdated roots of proletarian class struggle.

Attempts by such as Srnicek/Williams and Mason to point to ways forward from this mess have failed, and during the depressing circular firing squads which will break out over the next few years will be minced up and spat out – undeservedly perhaps, but with finality, reduced to factional splinters if they persist.

A progressivism that can have traction in these new circumstances must throw off the whole body of left ideology and what passed for analysis, and start again from a clear-eyed investigation of the present moment. Of course, history is not to be excluded from this project, but must be re-analysed on the basis of new primary research from a contemporary perspective. See Number 3.

Number 2: If you are concerned to defend the disadvantaged, as we all must be, against the worst onslaughts and cruel fallout of the policies this gruesome assortment of narcissist sociopaths will pursue, then at all costs do not do so on the basis of outdated analyses and ideologies. 

Be pragmatic. Do what works, not what is ideologically pure or ‘correct’. Have reference to the lived reality of those whom you seek to defend, and work as far as possible on the basis of building their own agency. Let Paolo Freire and his ilk be your guides in this. 

Never, never stand candidates for election. Support election slates and candidates on the basis of opportunism and term-limited trust, rather than seeking broad political alignment or long-term deals. 

Seek to build alliances across identity, without suppressing or denigrating identity.

Number 3: the Orthogonal turn. If Number 2 does not consume you – and it will consume many many lives that will be indeed be well spent in building and protecting enclaves of relative security, such will be the scale of misery that is coming our way – if you have energy and ambition to direct yourself towards the reconstruction of civilisation along lines which offer hope for its survival through the existential crisis that faces it (and let’s be clear, far more as a result of already built-in climate dynamics than any new madness these dangerous clowns might perpetrate) – then forget left and right. More, excise left and right from your mindset. 

This ‘dialectic’ if it ever truly existed (rather than being conjured into existence as a particular lens through which to view history), could only make sense if both sides were artefacts of capitalism – which in and of itself, is neither ‘right’ nor ‘left’, but an inhuman mechanism that seeks only to turn the living world into dollars – a machine that uses the humans who inhabit it as slaves – some more privileged than others, to be sure, but all slaves to the basic project of mindlessly burning through the living world, turning it into lifeless numbers.

And since it is clear that our only hope lies in transcending capitalism – in moving beyond the idea that that particular machine is the best we can do in terms of providing for our material needs – then it is clear that we must equally transcend left and right.

“All very well”,

you may say,

“- but my reality is that I live in, through and by capitalism, in a state where the politics which orders things is largely conditioned by left / right modalities. How can you seriously suggest that I ignore all of this – and, even more suspect, through some made-up idea labelled ‘transcending’?”

These points you might make are strong, perhaps irrefutable.

And yet it is also true that we must do this thing. 

True that all versions of ‘business as usual’ – whether framed as ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘capitalist’ or ‘anticapitalist’ – all lead to death and destruction on an unimaginable scale – and perhaps more tragically still, the likely loss of the precious work of the whole human race over ten thousand years: – what we call civilisation – none of which is encoded in our DNA, and all of which could so easily be lost / made inaccessible in a matter of a century or less – depriving all future humans of the riches that it has taken tens of billions of lives to develop and encode.

“Very well”,

I can imagine you saying (assuming that you have not by this stage walked off , shaking your head);

“give us, if you can, something that has a whiff of rationality, of pragmatism, of specific action about it, something that might be worth at least trying on for size.”

I thought you’d never ask…


All of the social relations of capitalism, the Nation States, all of the tropes and obsessions of both left and right, occupy only a small segment of what it means to be human, what it is to live. 

Whether western or eastern, from the empowered or disempowered parts of the globe, we live in cultures that are largely pre-capitalist in their framings.

We live in bodies and through emotions that were embedded in our DNA long before money was invented, or anyone imagined the Leviathan.

We communicate and think in languages and scripts that long predate the modern era.

The major philosophical schools ideas and tendencies were all founded before the birth of Christ.

All the major world religions are pre-capitalist.

Capitalism has sought to invade all of these, of course, to commodify and financialise them where it can, to minimise their traction where it cannot, but it has not had time, yet, to completely remake humanity in its own image – indeed it never could.

At the same time, the new technological realm is not inherently capitalist either – it has its own dynamic which is more human than not, for all its seeming alien underpinnings and geeky origin story.

What do we use digital tools for? By an enormous margin, we use digital tools to talk to each other – to convey human encoded messages that the computers understand not at all, and can parse only fuzzily, from person to person, from people to people. Tech came of age with the iPhone – a device that is predicated on the idea of people talking to each other, through all kinds of media.

My point is that the idea that we live in capitalism, that politics is everything, is a lie and a misapprehension that suits capitalism and the power hungry.

In reality, we live most of our lives in a sea of humanity, through conversations mediated by pre-capitalist cultures and conveyed by a post-capitalist technosphere.

In short, we already ignore both capitalism and politics most of the time.

This, though, is not transcendence, but subtendence (yup, I made it up, but I’m sure you know what I mean) – we accept that these modalities, which constitute most of our lived and worked experience, are often subject to the twin conditionings of capitalism and political reality.

We don’t have to, though.

This is not to say that we can exist entirely outside capitalism, outside the grubby politics of the nation state – not until they either collapse or we transcend them, at least.

But it is entirely possible for us, acting in consort with others, without any great stress or aggravation, to begin to make cultural and economic spaces, places where real things happen, real value is created and shared, places that lie outside these traps – just by agreement.

We do this already, all the time, in parties, in sports, in sub-rosa projects at work, all over the place. It’s not only nothing new, it is in fact how everything really gets done. If you think about it for a while you will see that capitalism or politics or your daily chores could never work if everyone did exactly what it says on the tin. If everyone did just what it says in the textbooks, nothing would work properly. 

In reality, right now – forgetting all this transcendence stuff for a minute – we put our humanity to the service of these non-human machineries because from our great, great grandparents’ time onwards, we have been beaten, starved, ostracised, criminalised, preached at, brainwashed, stolen from, enslaved, carrot-and-sticked, lied to, addicted, re-educated, advertised to, terrified, seduced, told reassuring stories to and otherwise suborned into it.

It’s not that we gave up or gave in under this sustained and inhuman onslaught, because we never give up – we, humans, like us or not, are the current flowering of evolution, its most dynamic and mercurial outcome to date – we don’t give up because we don’t even know how to.

No, we didn’t give up – we didn’t need to, because we had won – we had learned to live well enough within the machine, and to ignore it, by and large – to treat it as the environment. Just as the humans who ended up in the Arctic, having evolved to fit the Serengeti, learned to live well in conditions that seem inimical to life. And so we get on with our lives, trying to live well, loving our children, keeping them safe, teaching them as best we can, offering the world to them and them to the world, mostly ignoring these crazy machines that act as if we are their servants, their slaves.

All that could be just about bearable, and perhaps we could trust to some mysterious ‘urge of history’, operating through dialectics and class struggle, to evolve us toward a kinder and less cruel set of conditions.

Except that we don’t have time.

We are, right now, required to change this, or risk losing everything humanity has built.

And it’s easy – easy for humans, that is. Because we are used to living in many worlds – our culture has fitted us well for this. 

We just need to make the orthogonal turn, at a few points in our lives.

Orthogonality is nothing more than a conscious decision to operate in a new space which eliminates a few particulars that we have become accustomed to over the past few centuries (and which humanity did well without for millennia):

  • Credit that we depend on others to create and control.
  • Social structures which we accept are ultimately conditioned by impersonal violence.
  • Governance which we expect to be distant and statistical, as opposed to immediate and human-centred.

That’s enough. When some of us get together and agree to do something in a context within which we all agree to eschew these three things, we have constructed an aspect of the Orthogonal world. 

A world which looks and feels exactly like the one we live in – in which we will continue to live at the same time, until we can fully transcend it – at which point we can shed the husks of the old and begin to face the new problems we will have built for ourselves. A world which interacts happily with the everyday, requiring no radical gear changes as we turn from one to the other. A ‘Structure Preserving Transformation’.

The Orthogonal world will be just as messy, just as complex, just as joyful, just as bloody awkward as the one we are used to, but with a few key differences:

  • an economy which can provide for sufficiency without needing to burn the biosphere,
  • no systemic cruelty built in at the foundation,
  • with personal agency restored to the heart of governance.

And none of this requires anything more than adoption of tried and tested alternatives which simply been ignored or sidelined by the mainstream – no new world system, no ideological straitjackets to put on, no new language to learn – just different sorts of conversation about how to do stuff together, and a little more empowerment for you, your friends and colleagues. The cost? Some extra responsibility – for yourself, for your purpose, for you social setting, some rethinking – but seriously, not that much.

“Hold on, hold on now!”

– what? oh, it’s you again. I thought I’d be the only one here by now. What are you wanting?

“Well look now, it’s all very well saying no money, no violent enforcement of laws, and self government, but you’re going to have to give us a bit more detail than that! You sound like bloody John Lennon.”

Not too terrible an accusation, I’d say. If you’ll give me the post-Beatles John Lennon.

OK OK, I’ll be serious! What indeed are these ‘tried and tested’ alternatives?

  • we need money – money we create for ourselves, for our shared well-being – here’s Mutual Credit in theory and in practice (1,2).
  • we need the ability to manage our agreements without the threat of the army to keep us in line. Here’s the thousand year and more history of Commons governance.
  • we need to be able to manage a global civilisation while keeping governance up-close and personal. That means small communities. How can we have both – global co-ordination and local politics? Here’s digitally enabled federation, exemplified through the Credit Commons.

Of course, more detail is needed, but for a glimpse at the heart of an Orthogonal agreement, see the next few lines. They’re enough to get you started – a shorter and simpler constitution than your allotment society, I’ll bet.

Members agree to:

  1. Act with other Members in good faith to further the Purpose of the Sentient Commons.
  2. Join with other Members to form a global, unincorporated voluntary association (‘The Association’) without reference to the jurisdiction of any Nation State or Treaty Organisation.
  3. Abide by the Conditions of Membership, as follows:4.
    1. Each Member organisation desires to join The Association as an organisation (individual Memberships do not exist),
    2. The existing Membership consents (in accordance with Policies as agreed by Members) to the Membership of each Member.
    3. Membership will persist while both of these conditions are maintained, but not otherwise.
  4. Act with other Members in good faith to democratically govern The Association in accordance with Policies as agreed by Members under the terms of this Agreement.
  5. To support and enable the independence and freedom from coercion of a Sentient Commons Stewardship Panel in the maintenance, development and fulfilment of their role in delivering reasoned adjudications in all cases pertaining to the alteration and meaning of this Agreement, and additionally those deemed relevant in accordance with Policies as agreed by Members. The Stewardship Panel is to be formed of no less than 13 individuals selected by the Membership in accordance with Policies as agreed by Members.
  6. To act with other Members to establish such groupings of Members as are deemed necessary to develop the Association’s purpose.
  7. To act with other Members in the negotiation of any agreements required with other bodies as are deemed necessary to develop the Association’s purpose. Where practical, such agreements should be negotiated and formalised in accordance with processes and structures developed by The Association.
  8. Ensure, along with other Members, that The Association, under the jurisdiction of any Nation State or Treaty Organisation:
    1. Neither acquires nor holds assets, securities, or other property.
    2. Neither assumes nor takes on any debt.
  9. Arrange, with other Members, for any requirements in terms of assets, securities, property or debt to be managed on behalf of The Association by a suitable Stewardship Body, and managed as Common Assets/Liabilities.
  10. Not have resort to the legislature of any Nation State or Treaty Organisation in the resolution of any dispute with another Member or with the Association as a whole.

Sample agreement excerpted from the Sentient Commons introduction.

The orhthogonal world will not be built overnight, and not according to any published blueprint either, but from the interaction of a million, of ten million groups. This will take work. But it will be work which we own, which cannot be bought, stolen or sold back to us – it will be ours – belong to everyone in the Orthogonal world, a world we can be in and out of, just by changing our minds.

You can do that, can’t you? Let’s do it together.

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