Alternatives

Capitalism is not a done deal. We’ve still got other paths to take, other chapters to write, and other stories to tell in the human journey.

All over the globe exciting things are happening, paradigm breaking movements that are fundamentally challenging the dominant narratives of neoliberalism and economic growth: transition towns across the USA and Europe; Pachamama and the rights of nature movement in the Amazon; tax justice victories in Kenya; landless uprisings across India and Brazil; steady-state economics parties in Europe; and the nascent green revolution in China, to name a few. In these emerging terrains, we’re seeing a new type of political and economic model, one that takes into account the unique qualities of context and culture, time and space. What works in La Paz might be different than what works in Athens, or Nairobi, or Oaxaca, or wherever else. But underlying all of these post-capitalist dreams are the unifying principles of light and freedom, a world without poverty written into the very DNA of all of us. A world where, as the Zapatistas say, “all worlds are possible.”

MONEY: Make money positive and public

Right now, money is debt. It doesn’t feel like that day-to-day because of how we use it to buy stuff. But that myopic understanding is dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, it’s the smokescreen behind which extremely powerful private interests stand when they rob us of autonomy and potential. Secondly, it’s just an incomplete understanding, which is something that we should never be satisfied with.

Debt is obligation; a promise to do or pay something in future in exchange for something acquired today. A system of debt, therefore, is one that uses this idea in some fundamental way. Our money system is a system of two kinds of debt. Firstly, debt we call “credit”. Because the idea is so ubiquitous, because it is given the thumbs up from so many active players in our lives – from banks to shops to schools to Presidents – it is almost impossible to see how oddly pervasive, and how new, it is. Merely a hundred years ago, a life fuelled by credit/debt was a rare thing; the only thing most people routinely bought with money they did not have was a house, via mortgages. Then came cars and car payments. Now, it is not unusual for us to use credit/debt to buy everything. Literally. In countries like the US, if you aren’t using a credit card – i.e. a debt card – even for little purchases, you get penalized. Your credit rating stays low, you get less consumer protections, you even get a small social black mark by going against what has become the social norm.

Every cent of this credit/debt comes at a financial and psychological cost to you; financial, in the form of interest, and psychological in the form of the obligation it creates. It means all your decisions about what you can and cannot do are now balanced against whether or not you can meet those credit/debt obligations. We can get away for a while pretending that those obligations do not exist – which is why some people end up under active volcanoes of debt – but eventually we must all, we believe, pay the piper.

But even if you don’t use credit/debt cards, the cash in your wallet is the second form of debt. A form that is less felt at the individual level but that is nonetheless debt. The immediate obligation is carried by governments, to central, almost invariably now private banks. And in much the same way as it works with people, government obligations come in two forms, financial and psychological. The financial comes in the form of massive amounts paid in interest to the banks. The cost of this is passed onto people, partly through taxes, but perhaps more importantly via the psychological effect, which manifests itself through constraints in what governments can do, right up to their core strategy.

Austerity is a case in point; it dictates cuts in government spending and infrastructures hand-in-hand with acquiescing more power to corporates. In everyday language this sounds like, “we must cut spending on public services to balance the books, and we must incentivize job creators with lower taxes.” But spending on health, education and the like is almost never what leads to structural government debt or deficits. Wars, tax theft (via avoidance and evasion) and hoarding at the top are far bigger, more important factors in practically every case known.

Then, large corporations are very rarely job creators in the sense implied; they are, at best, organizers of pre-existing labor, and organizers who are often rewarded for paying precious little heed to the conditions of everyone who works for them, despite being the only ones with the power to affect them. The cross-sectoral strikes and protests and non-living wages ripping across America right now is evidence a-plenty that these instincts are powerful.

This situation rolls ever on because governments are ultimately in debt to banks, and so that is where their primary obligation lies. The more debt, the more obligation. In other words, governments are increasingly beholden to, and prioritise the needs of people who see their job as being to attract and protect their own material wealth (primarily to satisfy a need for social status and power).

It has reached a sublime level; it is so refined it is almost impossible to believe. But the financial crisis of 2008 laid it bare for all the world to see: private interests whose runaway greed was and still is far beyond the reach of governments to control. They could not because, ultimately, we all owe the bankers.

So, money must again be made an expression of positive value. This means taking the job of printing money away from private banks and putting it back under democratic control. Money might be thought of as a Commons, in this respect, and so subject to the same logic as water or air. This isn’t a radical idea, although it is often painted as such. It merely represents the way most money systems operated right up to the early 20th century and the establishment of the Federal Reserve.

POWER: Balance private and public power

Right now, people who see their job as being to attract and protect material wealth, primarily to satisfy a need for social status and power, make more of the important decisions in the world than people whose job it is to protect and promote the public good. In other words, private interests trump public; the interests of the few trump the interests of the many. This is why we can’t get a global deal on climate change. It’s why military spending is so high; far higher than logic or even practicality demand; it’s why, in some places, there is such public turmoil over the minimum wage but near-silence on very low rates of capital gains taxes. Indeed, it’s why the system is bending ever more in favour of capital over people and the environment.

What governance structures could do to balance the equation is limit the size of private power. And they need to do it quickly because very soon the power to do so will be stripped from them entirely. If we wait too long, the only power left will be public revolt, and that will be a lot more dangerous, disruptive and bloody than the alternative we probably still have available to us.

In practice, this would mean limiting both the size of corporations (i.e. the legal structures by which most private power is organized) to a certain size of the market in which they operate, and the number of markets they can operate in, and capping their size with reference to the larger national economy in which they are based and draw their profit (this type of ‘anti-trust law’ was common practice even in the United States all the way to the early 1970s); scrapping the laws that allow for the sort of secrecy necessary for very small groups of private individuals to amass very large amounts of wealth and power (particularly in banking and corporate law); and working to a principle of “true cost” by which the actual cost of production – i.e. including the environmental and social costs – must be represented in the cost at market of a product.

This would do incredible things, in the short term, to the cost of a hamburger, but it would ensure balance over the medium to long term of the impact of that hamburger on future generations. In return for all this limiting and opening up, governance should concern itself with championing alternatives to highly centralized models of business. They could follow the example of the government of Uruguay and set up ministries to promote worker-owned co-operatives.

IDEAS: Free our mind-space

It is very difficult for us to grasp the idea of a world without undifferentiated material growth right now because our minds have been colonized to accept it. From before the time we can reason for ourselves, we are fed the idea that more stuff is what brings happiness. The seeds of this opinion are sown at an age where emotional security and love are what most motivate us – i.e. as young children. The seeds are relentlessly tended to and watered, through constant validation of the idea everywhere we turn; from our ubiquitous screens to billboards to even the very frames of reference for progress and success encoded in our language. And so they grow, and by the time many of us reach the age where we might be able to critically assess such a reductive proposition and balance it well alongside the many other instincts and desires we are born with, deep roots have spread through our subconscious minds. We spend much of our adult lives grappling to temper the now super-charged and insatiable lust this belief is forever tempting us with. But so deeply is it embedded within us that we can barely think without some reference to it.

Nobody wants to suggest we should stop trading or advertising our wares to each other, or abolish trade and markets. The point is that there is nothing natural about being so totally immersed, at all stages of life, with the idea of perpetual material acquisition. We should be respecting everything we’ve learnt about the biology of our brains and leaving them enough time and space to develop as they have done for millennia, as they evolved to do, rather than using every trick in the book to pre-program us from childhood with an obsession for an instinct that, on its own, is destined to disappoint.

So, let’s get a better balance. Let’s stop the one-dimensional shriek of advertising from invading the most intimate theatres of our children’s lives – schools, play areas (real and virtual), the family home. And let’s turn down the volume for the rest of us by removing advertising from outdoor spaces; billboards, the sides of buses, subway stations and the like. Let the public space be as neutral as possible, free of the intrusive demands for special-status for that one part of our nature that responds to constant material acquisition.

There will, of course, be an immediate and hyperbolic scream of protest from some unimaginative quarters that this will kill the economy. But that’s nonsense. It’s been tried plenty of times, and with plenty of success. In 2006, Sao Paolo, the 4th largest city on the planet, banned outdoor advertising. Six years later, 70% of the population says it has been a beneficial change, and the economy is continuing as usual. Grenoble did the same just this year. Several Scandinavian countries have banned advertising to children; they’re doing fine

COMMONS: Bring Back the Commons

The idea that everything must be owned and controlled by people is pretty new, and a specific cultural tradition. It’s not entirely illogical, which is half the problem; it fits within a logic that says the world is ultimately a machine that must be managed and perfected by humans. And up to a point, that may make sense. We all need to know that the sleep that regenerated us last night is available to us tonight, and so we need our bed, our house, our food source, etc. But when this logic pervades every aspect of our lives, like an invasive weed, we end up with the idea that everything must be owned and that everything can legitimately be traded for profit, which is the source logic for runaway greed and a direct route to ensure we trample over the wisdom known since Biblical times, that “the love of money is the root of all evil”. It also kills-off the Commons.

For most of human history, when our societies were of a size where ownership of, for example, a whole river was a nonsensical idea in any practical sense (monarchs certainly claimed ownership of whole lands and everything in them, but they had no practical power to govern the water or the air and so it was a largely symbolic ownership) this concept was kept in check. But we long since passed that point. Now, we have people like the Chairman of Nestle – a man with the sort of power that could, in some possible future feasibly deliver on his dream – saying that all water should be privatized. All water, everywhere. He believes that it is necessary that someone own and distribute, and therefore others pay, for water. Of course, the problem is that those who need water (i.e. everyone and everything) is a far bigger category than those who could afford it once a material price is attached. But this, in his calculations, is presumably smaller discrepancy than if we leave some of it to nature and public governance.

The fatal flaw in the logic of privatization is hubris; thinking that he – or any person or small group of people – can possibly ever understand enough to manage the most vital element for life better than the population at large and nature itself. He’s certainly right that we need a good deal of organization and perhaps mechanization to distribute water, and that some of that can be privately owned, but he doesn’t know when to stop. He doesn’t acknowledge how his own instinct for power and control that forces him to take care of short-term private profit above all else must fatally cloud his judgement. He doesn’t believe that a plurality of systems is stronger than a single one. And he dismisses, really quite crudely, the absolute linkage between water and all life, and thus tramples over the idea that people everywhere are born equal, with an equal right to life.

The concept that humans have used for millennia, before it was crushed under the foot of private power in some parts of the world, was of The Commons. It says, there are some things upon which we all depend all of the time, and that therefore should be governed primarily (and that’s the key word) in the public interest. At the heart of this concept is the acknowledgement of human frailties. Some things are far too central to life to be left to anything but the most reliable of decision-making we know of, which is democracy. And not the illusory democracy of electoral process with elections every two to four years, but the more messy, imperfect, cumbersome governance of the people for the people. Not because it’s perfect but because, as Churchill famously quipped, it’s the worst system in the world except for all the others. And it is so because it harnesses the tempered wisdom of the hive mind, which, as any systems and complexity analyst will tell you, is more reliable than a single or small group of minds because of its inherent complexity. Of course, we then get into questions of which sort of democracy, and how we must balance the needs of minorities against some of the unintended side effects of majority rule, but they cannot be covered here. Here we must stop at the principle of democratic control of the Commons.

The Commons in question must include water and air, and the only way to build this into the system is to, well, build it into the system by measures such as “true cost”. This would involve a system where people get to directly influence decisions and outcomes, and it would require a price on the externalities – e.g. carbon use or pollution. That, on its own, is insufficient, however, as all that does is drag everything into the ruthless logic of the market. And so other principles must be applied, such as using public power to ensure that the amount of carbon dioxide released in production cycles (that is, carbon transferred from the ground, where it is safe, to the air, where, in sufficient quantities, it interferes with the planet’s natural atmospheric cycles) is acknowledged in the price. The market will never factor it in itself, as it is both legal and culturally acceptable to pretend the cost does not exist, and so public governance must help restore the balance through taxation and regulation. Even the communitarians and anarchists among us would probably accept the role of government to enforce the regulation of global capital and its impacts on local communities.

The Commons can also be valued and protected through concepts like the “social function of land”, already well used in places like Kenya, Brazil and Ecuador (well used in the sense of being the their national constitutions, that is. In practical terms, private ownership is still bending governance in favour of minority private interests). The principle is that all decisions about land ownership and use must serve more than simply a financial bottom line. They must respect the health of the land for future generations (e.g. not drain it of all irreplaceable nutrients, or poison it), ensure that the lives of the workers who work on the land are treated as important as that of the person who owns it, and other genuinely not very radical ideas.

Some countries, most notably Ecuador, have also played with the idea of Rights of Nature; of giving the natural environment the sort of rights we usually reserve for people – e.g. the right to continued health and flourishing. They, at least, have accepted the idea that humans and nature are part of the same basic system of life, and that a deep and broad approach to co-existence is not only possible but the only really reliable way of both humans and non human life-forms flourishing into the future.

SECRECY: Flip the Principle of Secrecy

There are very serious people now arguing for “open everything”. There is even a multi-government process called the Open Government Partnership (OGP) dedicated to making government data orders of magnitude more transparent. Unfortunately, these efforts are more than overshadowed – in fact they are left in the pitch black – by the bigger trend towards secrecy. The activities of the NSA are now well known, even if they are pretty much accepted in the mainstream thanks to the “there is no alternative” mindset plus fear-based politics.

Perhaps the most invigorating of the advocates for a radical re-balancing of what we allow to be kept secret and what we have publicly available is former Marine, CIA case officer, and co-founder of the US Marine Corps intelligence activity, Robert David Steele. In an interview with Nafeez Ahmed of The Guardian earlier this year, he set out his philosophy thus:

Sharing, not secrecy is the means by which we realize such a lofty destiny as well as create infinite wealth. The wealth of networks, the wealth of knowledge, revolutionary wealth – all can create a nonzero win-win Earth that works for one hundred percent of humanity. This is the ‘utopia’ that Buckminster Fuller foresaw, now within our reach.”

Indeed. Secrecy is a negative tool. In other words, it is the active removal of something that would otherwise naturally exist, in this case visibility. You can tell this because most secret information requires active and costly guarding. Left to its own device, information, especially information with value, travels. Which is not to say secrecy is never required, only that it should never be a default. Its parameters must always be visible, democratically authenticated, justifiable, and have that justification humbly on hand for those who would know and challenge it.

Right now, we live in a world where this is increasingly the case, for us as individuals. The opposite is true for structures of power or for elites within those structures. States, and by extremely short extension the corporate interests they have come to serve above all others, now demand and expect access to the sort of information that has, in other times, been the purview of the individual. Personal conversations between individuals are no longer considered sacrosanct. Electronic communications as a class are treated as fair game for security services, not because they are materially different, or less personal than analogue, but simply because they are digital. The default has become one of individual openness.

To a similar degree, states and corporations (the two mega-power structures) have closed up, and moved to a stance of default secrecy. The result is a transfer of power, from individuals to governments and corporations. This is a state that never leads to healthy, happy places. This is a state from which mindless – sometimes even unintentional – oppression flows.

In terms of a practical agenda, it’s simple, a familiar concept already in limited use, and we can’t say it any better than Mr. Steele:

Open Source Everything overturns top-down ‘because I say so at the point of a gun’ power. Open Source Everything makes truth rather than violence the currency of power. Open Source Everything demands that true cost economics and the Indigenous concept of ‘seventh generation thinking’ – how will this affect society 200 years ahead – become central.”

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