Economic Action – A Transcender approach.

This post relates to the wider ‘Transcender Manifesto for a World Beyond Capitalism‘ – more directly addressing the selection, requirements, design and operation of structures that could expand the world of transcender relations around value exchange – those that achieve viability through ‘earning their living’ in the economic sphere.

This is important because, despite the bad name economics has earned through the cruelties and negative impacts of the last few centuries of rampant expansionism, it seems clear that the messaging system facilitated by markets is fundamental to what we require from our civilisation – and that we cannot simply junk these without abandoning much that we value.

We have to accept that economic activity is at the core of our capacity to have a recognisable civilisation, at least until we can evolve further, to a gift economy of abundance.

In order to transcend capitalism, though, starting from where we are, we must fundamentally change the way that money, markets – and thus the implicit incentives that drive overall outcomes – work.

CORE INTENT

From the Transcender Manifesto:

We seek not to destroy capitalism, nor to reform it, but to transcend it – to consciously and rapidly evolve past it. We acknowledge its current hegemony, and accept that this arose as a result of its dynamism, adaptability, and ability to offer value to those who built it (while also recognising with horror its inherent violence towards the people and places which it so forcibly transformed). But the law of diminishing returns has set in, and the future negatives now dangerously and imminently outweigh any historic positives.

We will enact and intensify social relations that produce a human culture which supports the abundance of the biosphere, in confidence that this will require human flourishing that transcends what is considered possible under capitalism.

THE PARADOXICAL REQUIREMENT

If we are to take this intent seriously, then we must face, head-on – and resolve – a harsh paradox: that in order for new social relations to change the self-destructive path of capitalist world culture, they must be adopted at a faster rate than capitalism grows – we must accept that we are required to out-grow the most growth-oriented human invention to date, on the basis of a new and developing culture that consciously rejects using economic growth as a positive feedback loop.

This is a tall order.

In the first instance, capitalism must be acknowledged to be an astonishing human invention – incredibly adaptable, utterly amoral, utterly short-termist, operating always on the basis of giving those who push it forwards a speedy return. It has been hegemonic for centuries, and many aspects of its operation have become deeply embedded in our culture, to the extent that they are perhaps more real than physics for many people (despite being entirely contingent).

There are three broad options in the face of the civilisation-threatening end-game of such a virulent meme:

  • Violent Revolution – abrupt change at the centre. Historical examples suggest that this is ineffective as regards systemic change. Since the capitalist system is now a global machine, revolution would have to succeed on a significant scale – an unimaginable prospect given that the idea currently has so little public support. Further, there is no believable plan in place to support a civilisation of 7 billion plus humans if we were to overthrow capitalism. That is even if we ignore what people have to become to fight a revolution and win. If you are thinking about some peaceful transitions that took place as the Iron Curtain fell – which were described in terms such as ‘the Velvet Revolution’ – don’t let this confuse you; these were not revolutions against capitalism, but surrenders to it: a whole society giving up on a defeated attempt at a violent transition to what was little more than a theory.
  • Reform – the appeal to reason. The idea here would be to convince capitalist cultures that it is imperative to change the fundamentals of their model if we are to avoid collapse. On the face of it, this should have a chance – democracy is the accepted world governance standard, and all it takes is enough of us to vote for change, and we’ll get it, right? Sadly, this is dangerous naivety. Economic systems are only ever the means whereby power structures reproduce themselves – economics is not the power structure itself. Capitalism is not the be-all and end-all for the global elites – it is their enduring power they are really concerned about. Many of them are already pondering a post-crash world and various versions of neo-feudalism – with them as the new nobility. These elites, it seems to me, are hard for us to understand because they do something strange: while the rest of us oscillate between the short term (how do I pay the rent?) and the long term (how do we deal with climate change?), it seems that they think mostly in the medium term – about the power their children and grandchildren will inherit. This makes them discount long-term threats, while playing deeper financial games than we do. We can have no real dialogue with people who think this way – and even if we wished to they do not act as a class (in part because they rely upon the mystification of power provided by mainstream economics to the extent that many of them are unaware of their own reality). I think we can discount reformism as a busted flush – see Piketty.
  • Transcending capitalism. This third option seems weak by comparison at first – but I think it is the only safe way forward. It consists in: not fighting capitalism (unless absolutely necessary), not reforming it (because the history of reforms is that capital absorbs them and sells them back to us as the new engine of growth), but building better, more humane and healthy systems and structures in the cracks and gaping holes capitalism has ignored or created. What is interesting is to consider how capitalism destroyed feudalism. There was no war, no revolution, no reform (although wars, revolutions and reforms accompanied the change). Capitalism didn’t even know that it was capitalism until long after it had won. How did this happen? Through the accretion of new cultural modes, tricks, habits and tools that were developed, not with any intent to undermine feudalism, but to make things work for people in the places feudalism could not reach. To provide real value to people where feudalism was ineffective, or simply uninterested. To enable flows of human desire satisfaction and value creation that feudalism could not or would not do – or even conceive of. Through this process, it built a suite of cultural structures and stories that people voted for ‘with their feet’ – including the feudal elites; in the end, this is the approach that leads to peaceful revolution – when we can simply demonstrate a working social system that does better for everyone. For those who can bear to read speculative fiction, Cory Doctorow has written a rather good novel – Walkaway – that puts flesh on this approach.

If we are to succeed, I believe we have to understand this third option. But we haven’t time to wait for a few centuries worth of accretion of random experimental outcomes (the normal evolutionary process). So we have to engage in conscious cultural evolution.

This approach – which I am calling Transcender Culture – is nascent, untried, and chooses as its success metric a complex criterion: the carrying capacity of the biosphere – which is unlikely to align with simplistic measures of economic activity, at least not before deep cultural transformation.

So we will need to be careful, wise, determined and adaptable. Above all, we will need to take people – ordinary people – very seriously indeed. We cannot achieve our aim by expecting that a majority of the world will read things like this post, will become conscious cultural evolutionaries. Instead, we must expect that most people will be people – will care about the things that humans care about (while remembering that the things that capitalism tells us they care about are mostly a distortion) We must meet them there, and demonstrate a world that serves them well; helps them live in sufficiency and security with dignity, believe that their children will have decent life chances, experience positive community, connect with place, live in societies where care and trust are operational.

CONSIDERATIONS

In order to achieve this, if we are to create some sound building blocks for a new economy, those building blocks have to work at least as well as, and reasonably quickly, better than, the existing system, for the participants. Hoping that people will engage in something economically non-productive, in a context completely dominated by deliberately scarce money, rapacious corporations and the culture that surrounds these, is a fools errand.

I suggest we have to:

  • Look for the gaps where real and deep human desires and characteristics are ignored or suppressed by capitalism. These are not hard to identify, and they are at the base of what makes us human, Capitalism has had to fight hard to suppress them, and cannot eliminate them. Dignity, Love and Care, Autonomy-in-community, Place, Mutuality, Respect for ecosystems, Education for life – satisfying any of these in our lives entails working against the grain of our culture. People will welcome and seek out modes of making a living that embody these more on one proviso – that ‘making a living’ is not made harder: bringing one’s children up in security will always trump less immediate needs, and the current model will always seem the most obvious in times of stress.
  • Find ways to make the provision and satisfaction of these needs have an economic value. This seems a cringe-making thing to say – it sounds as if I am proposing turning love into money. But this response is only an indication of how deeply the made-up and outdated stories around debt-based, monopoly issue, inherently scarce money have been incorporated into our psyches. Economy is NOT money. Economy is the management of social resources and sufficiency for well-being. Our new systems (including money systems) must incorporate ways of making love, trust, dignity provide more well-being – on a full-spectrum that explicitly includes what we would now describe as economic security.
  • Consciously design and evolve these on a continuous basis. Capitalism has proved its capacity to adapt and incorporate new ideas at a rapid pace. We need to move faster, while assessing proposals on a broader spectrum.
  • Carefully avoid head-to-head battles against capitalism (for as long as this is possible). Building alternatives to uber is a dubious proposition. We can’t do capitalism better than capitalists (we shouldn’t try to) – and certainly can’t compete with them head-on in spaces they already define and own. This will waste our energies and destroy our hopes (this is what happened with local commodity currency experiments, imho). We need to find spaces that capitalism is uninterested in, and there build strong, self-sustaining, dynamic economically viable institutions, cultural understandings, mutual assurance networks, social relations.
  • Further, understand that we can use capitalism’s short-termism against it. We must design and use investment platforms that are happy to offer attractive rates of return to capital (this is not a pipe- dream, Chris Cook’s nondominium structure is able to offer attractive one-off returns while ratcheting assets and capacity into common control). Again, this sounds as if I am proposing feeding capital. In fact what I am suggesting is doing to capitalism just what it did to feudalism; use its assets as the fuel to build a new system. If that system is attractive to people, then for a while, it will – must – outgrow capitalism, and so provide ‘returns on investment’. The trick is to pay those returns in kind – in the products of the new way of working, rather than in fiat currency. In this way we can gradually hollow out the debt, scarcity and monopoly framed money that underpins so many destructive incentives.
  • Carefully building every single thing we do to protect the value we create from being re-absorbed by capitalism. Building societies are a perfect example. Insufficiently protected, having forgotten the purpose of their existence, they were swept away in a wave of short-termist destruction. We need to design all our institutions, all our mechanics, to operate on a ratcheting basis – once value has entered the new economy, it can’t be taken out (in just such a way capitalism took all the land from feudalists and commoners – buy buying or stealing or legislating it out of primogeniture inheritance, and putting it on the market). It is worse than pointless to build things that can be bought back into capitalism – like Mickey Mouse chopping the broom in half in the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ scene from Fantasia. Please don’t do it! Asset locks use another plank of capitalism against it – its requirement for strong property law.
  • Build all our systems with Elinor Ostrom’s commons governance married with the best that new democratic thinking has come up with (deliberative democracy, Viable Systems, sociocracy – there is so much good stuff that gets only marginal attention).
  • Understand that we are building human scale systems, that cannot and should not ‘scale’ in the way that we have become used to considering a fundamental requirement for ‘success’. Anything that scales the way capitalism does cannot support the list of humane and life-centred drives that I listed above. We must build a culture that can do something new – can be local and at the same time support and build the complex value chains that make our civilisation possible (more, we will need to make these value chains work in new, non-extractive ways that do not replicate the imperialist and externality mindset of capitalism). This will require federation, subsidiarity, Viable Systems thinking and more  to be made operational.

For me, right now, building a viable and economically attractive mutual credit system is a key plank of this strategy – the place I feel I can be most useful.

Mutual Credit is a money system that provides just enough money to match and develop the capacities of the community using it, without enforced debt or interest, and governed democratically by that community. It disincentivises hoarding and builds trust and inter-dependency. Mutual credit cannot be ‘cashed out’ into debt-based commodity currency.

[The Open Credit Network, which I work on, is developing a UK mutual credit network, with support from many of the leading practitioners and thinkers in this domain. Register your Expressions of Interest here.]

Response to Joe Brewer

Joe recently posted a long article that resonated with me, with the rather forbidding title, ‘Why I am no longer attempting to build a rigorous science of social change‘. I don’t know Joe, but have been aware of other posts and essays of his for some time. I connected with these because of seeing the name of the organisation he has co-founded; The Center for Applied Cultural Evolution, which immediately gave me the feeling that we had followed many common thought paths –  a feeling that has been reinforced by everything I have read of his since.

Briefly, what I sensed we share is a certainty that all that we humans really have is each other and our shared culture – that it is past time for us to take responsibility for our own development, and to seek to do this in the wisest, most sane way possible – using the best discoverable integration of our rationalising endeavours and our capacity for humanity. That despite full awareness of the provisional, incomplete and patchy status of both these resources, we are nevertheless at a point in our civilisational development when, for all sorts of reasons, it is both possible and necessary to begin this work.

Screenshot 2018-06-03 14.23.34

This is not the place to rehearse this conviction. If you share it, then read on. If it resonates with you, but you want more detail, then you may wish to read elsewhere before continuing.

Continue reading “Response to Joe Brewer”

LETS marketplace from a feature ‘phone

This post follows on from a previous post: Alternative currencies – Simbi and the Flying Brick. Thinking about how alternative currencies can be designed to suit the particular circumstances they are intended to improve, I suddenly realised that it should now be possible to implement LETS in any part of the world where people generally have access to feature ‘phones – which nowadays includes many places where access to hard cash is extremely difficult.

LETS Stands for Local Exchange and Trading Scheme. LETS systems exists to enable groups of people who for any reason at all find trading with traditional ‘hard’ currencies difficult.

For instance: people without enough money, people denied access to markets, people who want to be sure that the results of their efforts benefit their community as much as possible.

LETS systems must be able to do four simple things:

Continue reading “LETS marketplace from a feature ‘phone”

Alternative currencies – Simbi and the Flying Brick

Credit: danyythemartian – DeviantArt

The Flying Brick was the printed directory of the Brixton LETS Scheme (this isn’t the image we used – the original is lost in the mists of time – or a cardboard box in the attic).

LETS stood for Local Exchange and Trading Scheme. Brixton LETS was started in the second wave of alternative, local currency schemes in 1992 in Brixton, South London, and I’m proud to say I was one of the founding group, and one of the team that ran the scheme in its heyday over the following few years.

The idea was that members would trade together using our own local currency – the Brick (what else?) – which was a ‘virtual’ currency – a number in a database, with no physical existence. And that this currency would have different rules to ‘normal’ money, specifically: Continue reading “Alternative currencies – Simbi and the Flying Brick”

Trust Aggregation, reputation economies and privacy

Last night I listened to this feature on the excellent BBC World Service – Hacking the Vote – pegged on claims by companies hawking their services to political parties that they know enough about a great many individuals to be able to create specific pyschological profiles and thus enable carefully crafted messages to be shown to them, to get them to vote for the candidate paying for the service.

The shocking reminder of the extent to which data is being collected on all of us and put to murky use in the shadows prompted this post.

It’s not about data privacy, particularly – although I personally make my online life stupidly difficult by using a vpn, by installing the anti-tracking, anti java-script, anti adverts, anti-everything extensions I can find to my browsers in an attempt to at least put some road-bumps down for those who would treat my as a statistical profit centre. With the self-defeating result that half the sites I use won’t work unless I grant them freedom to do it all anyway.

It’s about a way that we, as individuals, might be able to use that data for our own purposes. If it’s all being collected and used to manipulate us anyway, why shouldn’t it work for us, a little?

Aggregated trust scores

There have been several attempts at building tools that provide reputation metrics, trust scores – think credit ratings on steroids.

The idea being that individuals will sign up to aggregator sites, and give them access to various kinds of trust/social standing scores. The aggregator sites will then publish trust metrics on individuals, to be used by all sorts of people. Employers, potential service users, lenders, contacts, dating matches.

If anyone manages to crack this (it’s not easy – see this dead indiegogo site for peeple), then individuals will spend more effort curating these than they do on their credit rating. Lawsuits will be brought over harsh ratings using defamation laws drafted decades before the internet was even imagined.

The trust aggregator metric that is itself trusted will be the locus of immense influence.  If that doesn’t already sound scary, there’s another big problem.

Continue reading “Trust Aggregation, reputation economies and privacy”

Games and Game-Theory – the trouble with paradigms…

First of a few posts with my own thoughts arising from the recent New Scientist ‘Instant Expert’ event.

gametheory
credit: xkcd.com

Games and Game Theory appear to be the ruling paradigm for the current AI top dogs. Both Irina Higgins and Simon Lucas made clear cases for the choice of gaming environments as AI training grounds, and referenced Game Theory, too.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to argue with them – but I do think it is worth examining the assumptions that underlie gaming approaches and Game Theory, and considering these as they relate to the problem spaces which we dearly wish that AI could help us with. As you might guess, I am not sanguine… Continue reading “Games and Game-Theory – the trouble with paradigms…”

A better nation?

“Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.”—Alasdair Gray

Inspiring idea … but what does a better nation look like? How does it work?

Read this.

In my post TechnoLiberation a few weeks ago, I rather vaguely proposed that the new political/economic paradigm would come up from underneath, that it would be predicated on enormous numbers of people using information technology to create new forms of interaction that worked for humans, that superseded the current models, rather than did battle with them.

Paul Mason’s new book, for which the article is a pre-publication taster menu, makes a much stronger, more detailed, and compelling case that the beginnings of this transformation are under way already – that the economics of information underpin all sorts of human initiatives, on a wide number of fronts, that offer tentative blueprints for ‘a better nation’ in the making.

A better nation – and one which people in technology can easily imagine that they are working in the early days of.