Saturday, 23 April 2022

Time for Change, Part 3: Without Hierarchies?

Webbwood Falls
about 2 hours drive
east of Kincardine

This is the third of several posts that I would have preferred to publish all at once, were it not for the extreme length of such a piece. It will make more sense if you go back and read the whole series, starting with the first one, if you have not already done so. To briefly and inadequately summarize, I'll just say that overpopulation and overconsumption (and their consequences) are the most serious problems that we face. Overpopulation is going to take decades to solve, while overconsumption could be addressed quite quickly if certain obstacles could be gotten out of the way. By reducing our level of consumption, we could reduce our impact on the planet and give ourselves time to reduce our population.

The blame for overconsumption can be laid squarely at the feet of capitalism, with its insatiable hunger to accumulate wealth, its inescapable need for endless growth, its inability to tackle any problem that can't be solved by making a profit and its endless blaring marketing machine which convinces us that we must consume, consume, consume. It is important to note that the majority of that consumption is done by a minority of people, the top ten to twenty percent of the richest people in the world. Sadly (from my viewpoint), I am part of that group and I suspect that many of my readers are as well, even though we wouldn't call ourselves "rich".

In a previous post where I looked at the problems with industrialization, I had promised to have a more detailed look at our financial systems and our governments.

In this new series I am finally doing that. In Part 1 we looked at our financial system and saw that money is a tool that facilitates the accumulation of wealth by the rich, and a mechanism by which they control the rest of us. It does this by making it possible to keep score in the complex game that is our economy, and pretty much guarantees that the wealthy win. Unfortunately, our financial system creates money as debt, which must be paid back with interest. In order to do that, the economy must continually grow, or it will collapse. At the same time, the inevitable consequence of continued growth on a finite planet is also collapse.

In Part 2 I discussed the problems with hierarchies, especially with governments that have been co-opted by capitalism. The point being that overconsumption is our most pressing problem and hierarchies and capitalism are potent, and mutually reinforcing, agents of overconsumption.

So, I think I've made it clear that we can do without money and capitalism, but can we really do without hierarchies? I'll break that question into several parts today.

1) Are human beings naturally hierarchical? Are we doomed to drift back into hierarchical organizations even if we successfully get rid of today's hierarchies?

2) Are there viable alternatives? That is, are hierarchies necessary when we organize ourselves into large groups and take on large projects, or are there others ways?

3) Given the strengths of today's hierarchies and their success at propaganda, is there any hope that we can get rid of them?

We are repeatedly told that the answer to these questions is yes, no and no, respectively. But if we look a little closer, I think we will find different answers (no, yes and yes). Part of what will lead us to those answers is that, in order to reduce consumption to a sustainable level, we need to only do things that are really necessary—that actually provide the necessities of life to the human race. My definition of necessities is probably wider than yours, but it definitely doesn't include helping hierarchies grow and become more powerful, or helping capitalists accumulate wealth.

OK, question 1. Are humans naturally hierarchical?

In an earlier post I said that for most of our pre-history people lived in egalitarian hunter gatherer bands, and that we have evolved to be best suited to similar circumstances. One of my readers (Stephen Kurtz) objected, pointing out that people are naturally hierarchical—an assertion that he found to be obviously correct, but which just didn't sound right to me, based on my personal experience of living with other human beings. I have to thank Stephen, since his comment motivated me to do some reading that resolved this seeming contradiction. It seems that, yes, people do have innate drives to dominate and to submit, in varying degrees. So we can easily fall into the trap of hierarchical organization, with a few of those who prefer to dominate making it to the top, and the rest of us stuck underneath them. How then does one explain all those egalitarian societies in our past? And even a few remaining at present.

Well, it seems that we also have a strong innate resentment of being dominated. In small bands of people, where there is only room for one leader, most people realize that they cannot reasonably hope to be that person. If they let an upstart take over and run things, they will be stuck submitting to him for the rest of their lives, or they will have to leave the band. That is exactly what happens among gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, our nearest relatives. And it was probably our "original" state, as well, if you look far enough back.

Graeber and Wengrow, in The Dawn of Everything spend a lot of time trying to avoid the question of whether our original state was hierarchical or egalitarian. I am not nearly so worried about this—I think you can argue that at one time our distant ancestors did live in primitive hierarchies like our primate relatives. But this was before we were fully human, and it was only when we found another, more egalitarian, way of living that we really became fully human.

At some point in our past, our ancestors realized that it was possible to prevent upstarts from taking over (with careful vigilance and suitable tactics to control them), and thus to live in an egalitarian society. You didn't get to dominate, but at least you didn't have to submit, and it seems that for most of us this was preferable. Over time, techniques for controlling upstarts were finely honed. These include ridicule, criticism, ostracism, and murder. Once such a system is functioning smoothly, it discourages would be upstarts from acting on their deviant impulses. And it provides a much less stressful social environment for people to live in.

I should note here that from most of the reading I've done on this subject I was left with the impression that these egalitarian bands lived pretty much in isolation. It has recently been suggested to me by a reliable source (thanks, Helga Ingeborg Vierich), that this wasn't so. She says, "bands, in fact, are temporary camping groups, part of a much larger community that shares the same dialect or language, numbering in the many hundreds, or even thousands, of people. Most of these people know each other, or at least know of each other through their individual social networks of friends and family. And camping parties do change in membership from camp to camp and so they rarely consist of the same households over the course of the year." This is supported by what I've read of the Anishinabek in colonial times (Cecil King's book on Jean-Baptiste Assiginack).

Living and evolving in small egalitarian groups fine-tuned our empathy, our communication skills, our tendency toward altruism and our dislike of being dominated. All these thing are innate characteristics of human beings today. So it seems very likely that we could indeed learn to live in non-hierarchical societies again, if given the opportunity. And there is little reason to think we would subsequently backslide into hierarchies. Especially if we keep alive the memories of how bad it was for most of us to live in hierarchical societies.

There will, of course, be an initial learning curve for things like consensus decision making. But excellent training materials and skilled trainers already exist, so this should not be an insurmountable obstacle.

In my recent post on money, I commented on differences in attitude towards the contributions of skilled/successful people in egalitarian societies and in our modern society. Such people in egalitarian communities see their contributions as part of their responsibility to support their community. It is just what human beings do, to the extent of their abilities, without expecting to go on to accumulate wealth, fame or power, or to set themselves above their fellows.

This is strongly in contrast to our modern society where successful people are expected to accumulate wealth, and to use it to accumulate more, without necessarily benefiting their fellows at all.

I think a parallel can be drawn here with differences between leadership in egalitarian societies and hierarchical societies.

Of course, in an egalitarian society, much less in the way of leadership is needed, and what is needed can be much more informal. Still, people will look to individuals with talent, skills and experience in a particular area to provide guidance, mentoring and leadership in that area.

A leader in such societies is expected to be capable and successful "economically", but also generous, impartial, patient and in control of his temper, a good orator capable of winning over an audience and skilled at settling disputes. But never arrogant, parsimonious (cheap), mean, overbearing, boastful or aloof. Because a leader was expected to be generous and help the unfortunate in his community from his own resources, he was often the poorest person in that community. (The content of this paragraph was picked out of various places in Christopher Boehme's book, Hierarchy in The Forest))

To sum it up, in egalitarian societies, a leader's role is to benefit his society rather than himself. To borrow a term from the Zapatistas, you should "lead by obeying"—always keeping in mind the needs and the desires of the people you lead, rather than your own personal ambitions.

In hierarchies people seek leadership roles for several reasons: more pay, more power and control over their futures, increased upward mobility and so on. A leader in a "front line" position is a modern hierarchy is not in that different a situation from a leader in an egalitarian society, except that he has above him a hierarchy which has some expectations of him that have little or nothing to do with the welfare of those he leads. The job is to get the working people to do what those higher up want them to do. But you can't do that without winning the co-operation of your workers. So this is a balancing act, but many leaders are oblivious and lead with their gaze focused upward, often with amusing results.

Still, leaders are an absolute necessity in a hierarchy, lest the working class rise up and start seeing to their own needs, rather than the desires of those above them.

2) Are there viable alternatives to hierarchical organizations?

We are told that large groups, living in more complex ways, tackling large and complex projects, require hierarchies to successfully organize them. This seems a self serving opinion, since such hierarchies largely exist to perpetuate their own existence and growth, and funnel wealth up to those at the top.

I'll admit that co-ordination is required whenever people work together. To borrow from Michael Albert (of Participatory Economics fame), probably about 20% of the work done in a typical modern enterprise is co-ordination work. At present that labour is done by a special 20% of the people in the organization, who occupy all but the bottom-most layer of the organization's hierarchy. It could just as easily be shared out among all the employees, as 20% of their work, completely eliminating the upper tiers of the hierarchy.

If we do away with the co-ordinator and owner classes, allow the employees to manage themselves and share onerous duties equally among each other, things would actually work much better. Without any hierarchy at all.

Workers who have a grasp of how the organization works beyond their own immediate task can cope better with the inevitable unexpected situations that always come up. When "shit jobs" are shared equally among all workers, a good deal of resentment is eliminated. Workers who manage themselves gain a sense of empowerment, are more highly motivated, and can innovate more effectively than managers in a hierarchy, because of their intimate knowledge of affairs on the shop floor. All this works best when owners are eliminated and workers can decide how much of a surplus to aim for and what to do with it when they succeed in generating it. In many cases, workers will choose more leisure time rather than additional material rewards. And that will also contribute to reducing overconsumption.

That's in larger organizations. Reducing overconsumption will mean taking on fewer large endeavours, so there will be less need for large organizations. As I have already suggested, today's large organizations exist primarily to promote their own existence and growth, and facilitate the accumulation of wealth by their owners. They serve little other purpose. Most of what really needs to be done could be done by smaller groups and eliminate a bit chunk of consumption in the process. With the benefit of reducing the amount of co-ordination required.

Borrowing here from Microsolidarity, I would suggest the people naturally function as individuals, duos (two people), crews (3 to 8 people) and congregations (30 to 200 people). Above that there is the "crowd", which is the larger community in which the smaller groups are embedded. We evolved in bands that were very similar to "congregations", and within those bands smaller groups similar to "crews" took on tasks that were too big for one or two people. In both cases, it seems to me that we evolved, and still have, innate abilities to function well in these kinds of groups.

A congregation should be based in an actual geographical area and be made up of the people living there. Their primary concern should be securing the necessities of life for themselves, a situation where producers and consumers are the same people and regulating supply and demand is greatly simplified. The individuals, duos and crews within a congregation will provide the mechanisms for actually securing those necessities.

Capitalism has done its best over the last couple of centuries to eliminate crews and congregations, because those types of group open up the possibility of co-operation, mutual aid and self sufficiency, and make it hard for capitalist hierarchies to control people.

So, it seems clear to me that we could indeed eliminate large hierarchical organizations and a lot of the effort and consumption that goes into creating and maintaining them, and still have, through self management and community ownership, much of what those organizations officially claim to be trying to achieve. As Noam Chomsky said, if you cannot justify a power structure (hierarchy), it should be eliminated. As I would say, you will have a hell of a time justifying most power structures.

Am I missing any other important roles that hierarchies play or situations in which they are needed?

One possibility is the military. Currently the military is set up in a very hierarchical way, so much so that we have trouble imagining it could be otherwise. In fact, though, the best militaries come from societies with a very flat structure, and the worst from societies with very rigid hierarchical power structures. The chaos of war rewards initiative at the lowest levels, similar to the peace time organizations I was just talking about. Which should cast some serious doubt on our assumptions about the military.

And of course the other thing is that militaries are currently necessary because of the conflicts for land and resources that arise between our hierarchical organizations (countries, primarily). Eliminate them and conflicts should be much smaller and less frequent, probably not requiring formal standing armies at all. Smaller organizations, making decision that they themselves have to live with, should get into fewer conflicts.

Many people will tell your that hierarchical organizations are necessary to co-ordinate our response to disasters. This is supported by the disaster myth which would have us believe that the people on the ground in disasters are largely helpless. But, in fact, people do a pretty good job of helping themselves, especially if they have access to the resources they need. What hinders people helping themselves in disasters is a lack of such resources, primarily due to fiscally conservative politicians who will not spend money on planning ahead for disasters. Small groups doing their own planning and keenly aware that they will suffer personally from the effects of short range thinking, are much more likely to do a good job of planning ahead, setting aside resources and training their people to respond in disaster situations.

We currently have large regulatory hierarchies, which are needed to control the excesses of capitalism. When those making decisions are the same ones who will be affected by them, better decisions will be made. People who can organize themselves to survive climate change, biosphere disruption and resource depletion will plan so as to mitigate these things at present and avoid them in the future. With capitalism and oligarchies removed, the temptation to seek short term personal gain instead of planning for the long term should be significantly reduced.

Of course, some will scoff at all of this, saying that this is just communism, which didn't work in the twentieth century and won't work now. What I am talking about is anarcho-communism, or perhaps, eco-anarcho-communism would be a better term. The communist regimes of the twentieth century were authoritarian communitsts, and from that came their problems. They made the mistake of throwing out the old owner/co-ordinating classes (aristocracy and bureaucracy) who had been running their countries and then replacing them with a new co-ordinating class based on the "party". The new co-ordinators were no better than the old ones. Little changed for most people, who had no opportunity to self manage, and who gave the party the absolute minimum of co-operation that they could get away with. As you might expect, this didn't work very well. But it is a mistake to judge communism on how it worked in those cases.

In Russia, before the October Revolution, the workers had already set something close to anarcho-communism, but when Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over they soon eliminated that, and set up an authoritarian state that had little in common with the sort of communism that I am advocating.

In my next post we'll look at the answer to my third question—given the strengths of today's hierarchies and their success at propaganda, is there any hope that we can get rid of them?


During the last few months I've been reading a number of very interesting books and websites, which bear upon what we are discussing. Here is a list of those books, along with a few that I've read previously, but that also have been a help.

Debt, The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber

Hierarchy in the Forest: the evolution of egalitarian behavior, by Christopher Boehm

The Art of Not Being Governed, by James C. Scott

Against the Grain, a deep history of the earliest states, by James C. Scott

Living at the Edges of Capitalism: Adventures in Exile and Mutual Aid, by Andrej Grubacic

The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow

No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World, by Michael Albert

Balancing Two Worlds: Jean-Baptiste Assiginack and the Odawa Nation, 1768-1866, by Cecil King

Websites

Sunday, 27 March 2022

What I've Been Reading, February 2022

Links

Above the Fold

Miscellaneous

  • SpaceX’s Latest Rocket Engine Will Dominate Space, by Will Lockett, Medium—Predict
    "Elon’s Raptor 2 engine is in another league."
    It is pretty amusing, really, when you get to the end of the article and find out they are having trouble controlling the build up of heat in the rocket engine, and it is a long way from delivering on the promises touted early in the article.

Coronavirus

Housing

Capitalism, Communism, Anarchy

  • ThedaCare Medics Row Shows Worker Clout, by Dawn Allen, Legal Reader
    "Seven ThedaCare medics quit for better jobs. At first, a judge said they couldn’t go, a stunning decision in an economy which should be golden for workers."

The New Fascism, the Far-Right and Antifa

I hear a lot of well educated people saying that the people some of us are calling fascists don't meet all the criteria for being "real" fascists. Others have even accused us of calling anyone we disagree with a fascist. I predict that a few decades (maybe just a few years) from now those same people will be saying they wish they hadn't been quite so fussy with their definitions, and had acted sooner to oppose these "new fascists", even if they weren't identical to the fascists of the twentieth century. The following four paragraphs, by Shane Burley, are the best short defintiion of fascism I have yet come across.

There has to be a reliable base point when we are looking at something we think to be fascist, especially when it runs a certain level of subtlety that isn’t apparent on its own terms. I have defined fascism using two key primary points: inequality and essentialized identity.

Inequality: The belief that human beings are not equal for immutable reasons, such as intelligence, capacity, spiritual caste, etc. This inequality is not just fact, but it is a sacrament, meaning that society should be constructed with cleanly defined hierarchies, which are natural, and that society would then be healthier when those hierarchies are made explicit and enforced. This also lends itself to the importance of elitism, that there must be an elite ruler caste, even though they usually reject the existing ruling class.

Essential identity: Our identities are fixed and define us, they are not socially constructed or chosen. The most common of these is racial given white nationalism as the dominant form of Western fascism, but it could also include gender (male tribalism), specific ethnicities (inter-European nationalism), sexual orientation (extreme queer-phobia), or religion (Hindutva). And when I say essentializing identities I mean that it is not just an identity that is true (like being of African heritage), but that the identity defines you in some way as incidence.

There are several points that I consider very important in the definition of fascism, but often put just secondary to the two critical points. This would include a mythology about its tribal group, the sanctity of violence, revolutionary strategy (in some degree), authoritarianism, populism, and the appropriation of the Left. While these almost always exist in relationship to fascism, they are not defining of fascism because they may exist outside of fascism. It is not uncommon to interact with revolutionary left movements that are authoritarian or fetishize violence, and while that may be abhorrent, it does not make them fascist.

  • What Is Fascism? An Excerpt From “Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It”, by Shane Burley, Truthout
  • Genetic Engineering

    Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that this section was paid for by Monsanto, stop for a moment and understand that organic agriculture/food is a multi-billion dollar per year industry that relies on fear to get people to buy its products. Millions of dollars are spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are equally safe. Sadly neither method of agriculture is even remotely sustainable.

    • Panic-free GMOs, A Grist Special Series by Nathanael Johnson
      "It’s easy to get information about genetically modified food. There are the dubious anti-GM horror stories that recirculate through social networks. On the other side, there’s the dismissive sighing, eye-rolling, and hand patting of pro-GM partisans. But if you just want a level-headed assessment of the evidence in plain English, that’s in pretty short supply. Fortunately, you’ve found the trove."
      A series of articles that does a pretty good job of presenting the facts about GMOs. I plan to include one article from this series here each month.
    • Block party: Are activists thwarting GMO innovation?, by Nathanael Johnson, Grist
      "GM technology hasn't lived up to its hype. Genetic-engineering proponents blame activists. Here's a deeper look at the GMO blame game."
      I have to say that Mr. Johnson leans pretty heavily to the anti-GMO side in this one, even thought the facts he presents don't support that.

    Practical Skills

    Debunking Resources

    These are of such importance that I've decide to leave them here on an ongoing basis.

    Books

    Fiction

    • Light Chaser, by Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell
      "Amahle is a Light Chaser – one of a number of explorers, who travel the universe alone (except for their onboard AI), trading trinkets for life stories. But when she listens to the stories sent down through the ages she hears the same voice talking directly to her from different times and on different worlds. She comes to understand that something terrible is happening, and only she is in a position to do anything about it. nd it will cost everything to put it right."
    • A Desolatioin Called Peace, by Arkady Martine
      "A Desolation Called Peace is the spectacular space opera sequel to A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel."
    • Bright Morning Star, by Simon Morden
      "Simon Morden has won the Philip K. Dick Award and been a judge on the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He is a bona fide rocket scientist, with degrees in Geology and Planetary Geophysics. In Bright Morning Star he delivers perhaps his finest work to date, a ground-breaking take on first contact. Sent to Earth to explore, survey, collect samples and report back to its makers, an alien probe arrives in the middle of a warzone. Witnessing both the best and worst of humanity, the AI probe faces situations that go far beyond the parameters of its programming, and is forced to improvise, making decisions that have repercussions for the future of our entire world."
    • Gallowglass, by Simon Morden
      "Jack Van Der Veerden is on the run. From his billionaire parents' chilling plans, from his brutal bodyguard, from a planet on the brink of climate chaos.
      "Seeking freedom out in space, he gets a job on a mining ship chasing down an asteroid. Crewed by mercenaries and misfits, they all want a cut of the biggest payday in history. A single mistake could cost Jack his life - and that's before they reach their destination. The bounty from the asteroid could change lives and save nations - and corrupt any one of them. Because in space, it's all or nothing: riches beyond measure, or dying alone in the dark."

    Non-Fiction

    • No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World, by Michael Albert
      "Providing hope and direction to sustain commitment on the path to change, No Bosses is about winning a new world.
      "Life under capitalism. Rampant debilitating denial for the many next to vile enrichment of the few. Material deprivation, denial, and denigration. Dignity defiled. Michael Albert's book No Bosses advocates for the conception and then organization of a new economy. The vision offered is called participatory economics. It elevates self-management, equity, solidarity, diversity, and sustainability. It eliminates elitist, arrogant, dismissive, authoritarian, exploitation, competition, and homogenization. No Bosses proposes a built and natural productive commons, self-management by all who work, income for how long, how hard, and the onerousness of conditions of socially valued work, jobs that give all economic actors comparable means and inclination to participate in decisions that affect them, and a process called participatory planning in which caring behavior and solidarity are the currency of collective and individual success."

    Monday, 7 March 2022

    What I've Been Reading, January 2022

    Links

    Above the Fold

    Miscellaneous

    Coronavirus

    The New Fascism, the Far-Right and Antifa

    I hear a lot of well educated people saying that the people some of us are calling fascists don't meet all the criteria for being "real" fascists. Others have even accused us of calling anyone we disagree with a fascist. I predict that a few decades (maybe just a few years) from now those same people will be saying they wish they hadn't been quite so fussy with their definitions, and had acted sooner to oppose these "new fascists", even if they weren't identical to the fascists of the twentieth century.

    • What Is Fascism? An Excerpt From “Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It”, by Shane Burley, Truthout
      "There has to be a reliable base point when we are looking at something we think to be fascist, especially when it runs a certain level of subtlety that isn’t apparent on its own terms. I have defined fascism using two key primary points: inequality and essentialized identity.
      Inequality: The belief that human beings are not equal for immutable reasons, such as intelligence, capacity, spiritual caste, etc. This inequality is not just fact, but it is a sacrament, meaning that society should be constructed with cleanly defined hierarchies, which are natural, and that society would then be healthier when those hierarchies are made explicit and enforced. This also lends itself to the importance of elitism, that there must be an elite ruler caste, even though they usually reject the existing ruling class.
      Essential identity: Our identities are fixed and define us, they are not socially constructed or chosen. The most common of these is racial given white nationalism as the dominant form of Western fascism, but it could also include gender (male tribalism), specific ethnicities (inter-European nationalism), sexual orientation (extreme queer-phobia), or religion (Hindutva). And when I say essentializing identities I mean that it is not just an identity that is true (like being of African heritage), but that the identity defines you in some way as incidence.
      There are several points that I consider very important in the definition of fascism, but often put just secondary to the two critical points. This would include a mythology about its tribal group, the sanctity of violence, revolutionary strategy (in some degree), authoritarianism, populism, and the appropriation of the Left. While these almost always exist in relationship to fascism, they are not defining of fascism because they may exist outside of fascism. It is not uncommon to interact with revolutionary left movements that are authoritarian or fetishize violence, and while that may be abhorrent, it does not make them fascist. "
    • No, that’s not what fascism is, by Shane Burley, Gods & Radicals Press

    Food

    Genetic Engineering

    Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that this section was paid for by Monsanto, stop for a moment and understand that organic agriculture/food is a multi-billion dollar per year industry that relies on fear to get people to buy its product. Millions of dollars are spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are equally safe. Sadly neither method of agriculture is even remotely sustainable.

    • Panic-free GMOs, A Grist Special Series by Nathanael Johnson
      "It’s easy to get information about genetically modified food. There are the dubious anti-GM horror stories that recirculate through social networks. On the other side, there’s the dismissive sighing, eye-rolling, and hand patting of pro-GM partisans. But if you just want a level-headed assessment of the evidence in plain English, that’s in pretty short supply. Fortunately, you’ve found the trove."
      A series of articles that does a pretty good job of presenting the facts about GMOs. I plan to include one article from this series here each month.
    • Is genetic engineering a doomed effort to reinvent nature’s wheel? by Nathanael Johnson, Grist
      "It’s not very exciting to say that each avenue of research project should be funded on its merits. It would be much more powerful if I could make the case that GE food can just never deliver as much public good as money spent elsewhere. But there’s just not good evidence for that the case.
      Indeed, it’s clear that genetic engineering can provide a huge monetary return on investment. The success of commercial biotech hints that the technology also could provide return on investment for the environment, and for humanity, if we pursued the right avenues. We don’t need GMOs to save the world. But they could probably help."

    Practical Skills

    American Politics

    Linguistics

    Debunking Resources

    These are of such importance that I've decide to leave them here on an ongoing basis.

    Science Based Medicine

    Gender and Sexuality

    Artificial Intelligence

    • Why Tesla Cannot Solve Full Self-Driving, by Rebel Science, Medium
      "Deep Learning Is Hopelessly Flawed"
      "The brain can instantly perceive any pattern or object in sharp detail even if it has not seen anything like it before. A deep neural net would be blind to it."

    Books

    Fiction

    Wednesday, 16 February 2022

    Time for Change, Part 2: Hierarchies

    Pinnacle Rock Falls
    about 2 hours drive east of Kincardine

    This is the second of several posts that I'd have preferred to publish all at once, were it not for the extreme length of such a piece. I would suggest that you go back and read the first one, if you have not already done so. To briefly and inadequately summarize, I'll just say that overpopulation and overconsumption (and their consequences) are, in my opinion, the most serious problems we face. Overpopulation is going to take decades to solve, while overconsumption could be addressed quite quickly if certain obstacles could be gotten out of the way. By reducing our level of consumption, we could reduce our impact on the planet and give ourselves time to reduce our population.

    The blame for overconsumption can be laid squarely at the feet of capitalism, with its insatiable hunger to accumulate wealth, its inescapable need for endless growth, its inability to tackle any problem that can't be solved by making a profit and its endless blaring marketing machine which convinces us that we must consume, consume, consume. It is important to note that the majority of that consumption is done by a minority of people, the top ten to twenty percent of the richest people in the world. Sadly, I am part of that group and I suspect that many of my readers are as well, even though we wouldn't call ourselves rich.

    In a previous post where I looked at the problems with industrialization, I had also promised to have a more detailed look at our financial systems and our governments.

    In this new series I am finally doing that, and last time we looked at our financial system and saw that money is a tool that facilitates the accumulation of wealth by the rich, and a mechanism by which they control the rest of us. It does this by making it possible to keep score in the complex game that is our economy. Unfortunately, our financial system creates money as debt, which must be paid back with interest. In order to do that, the economy must continually grow, or it will collapse. At the same time, the inevitable consequence of continued growth on a finite planet is also collapse.

    I then asked if we could do without keeping score—without money—and concluded that we could indeed, and to the benefit of most everyone. Especially since the collapse we are facing will hurt people of all socio-economic classes.

    Today I'll take a similar look at our governments (and most of the rest of our organizations), identify the problems with them and ask if we could do without them.

    These days our families, communities, businesses and so on all the way up to our countries and the UN are organized as hierarchies, and most have been since they were first created. Like money, this sort of organization is a tool designed for the benefit of certain people (those at the top), to be used by them to secure their power, wealth and privileges, and to keep the rest of us in the position where we "belong"—lower down in the hierarchy. And in the process, to stop us from ever realizing that there is any viable alternative.

    Inherent Failings of Hierarchies

    We are told that a global civilization like ours is so big and complex that it simply couldn't function without a hierarchical organization. I would say just the opposite—that our civilization is so big and complex only because it has to support hierarchies. If we didn't have to maintain hierarchies for the benefit of those at the top of them, we could adequately take care of ourselves with much simpler organizations, in smaller groups, at less expense—in other words, with less consumption.

    I usually refer to this phenomenon as the "diseconomies" of scale—the opposite of economies of scale. Economies of scale do exist, of course, but beyond a certain point the organizational costs swamp out the advantages of size. And that point is surprisingly small.

    In a small group, say 200 people or less, no formal organization at all is required. With little effort, everybody gets to know each other, and to know what's going on. Decisions can be made by direct democracy, where the whole group gets together, talks things over and a consensus is reached. I'll be talking about that at length later in this series, but the thing to realize here is that even in small organizations, if there is a hierarchy, it introduces problems.

    In a hierarchy, even one that is ideally organized and where everyone involved is a willing participant and eager to do their part, information must flow upward from where the actual work is going on to the appropriate decision making level, and decisions must flow down to where they will be actually implemented. This involves a lot of non-productive effort done by people who must be supported by those who are productive.

    Of course, real hierarchies are far from ideal. Things are done in unnecessarily complex ways just to support the hierarchy and in many cases to make it look more impressive. The people at the top are inevitably isolated from the rest of the organization and rarely have the information they need to make good decisions. I was a supervisor and then a manager, after years of being a worker, and I was shocked by how quickly I lost touch with things at the workface. And I was trying very hard not to be influenced by the bullshit flowing down from higher in the hierarchy. Often, low level managers wallow in that stuff enthusiastically.

    Many managers are not particularly capable of making good decisions. And even those that are frequently focus on their own benefit, with little concern for anything else.

    But beyond all this, there are other problems that result from how hierarchies have to be established and maintained. In real hierarchies most of the people involved are not there willingly and are not particularly eager to do their part. They must be forced to do so, which is another cost of running a hierarchy. To be absolutely clear, inequality is an inherent feature of hierarchies, and can only be maintained by exploiting and oppressing those in its lower classes and blaming that situation on those same oppressed people. Let's have a closer look at how this works.

    There are three basic mechanisms for establishing and maintaining a hierarchy—physical coercion, bureaucracy and charisma. Any one of these mechanisms can be used to build some sort of hierarchy, any two can make a pretty solid hierarchy, but when all three function together you get the situation we have today—that of being firmly stuck with our existing hierarchies.

    One assumes that physical coercion started with a leader simply forcing his will on his followers. The next step would be surrounding himself with some bullies to who he could delegate that job. One suspects that this was not too effective for the rulers as their control wouldn't extend much beyond their own physical reach. Even with henchmen, this improved only a little, since those guys had their own interests and spent much of their time seeing to them. And there were always a few who, when the opportunity arose, were willing to step into their leader's place. Killing him, if necessary, to get rid of him.

    Actually, this sort of organization wasn't too onerous for those being ruled. You had a number of options—quiet disobedience or just leaving, possibly to set up your own more agreeable organization in another location.

    But since then, the techniques of physical coercion have been considerably refined. Today, states claim a monopoly on violence, which they implement through police forces and the military. If this is managed with a light enough touch, the populace may well be willing to go along quietly. Or, in totalitarian states, there is little alternative and people suffer under a much heavier touch.

    Bureaucracy amounts to a state monopoly on information. Everyone in a hierarchy needs information and controlling it is an effective way of keeping people in line. Much of how money and debt are used as a mechanism of control falls under this category.

    Charisma is a way of influencing people without using force or bureaucracy. It is easy enough to imagine how charismatic leaders may have taken over small groups. But even in our supposed democratic countries, what is an election but a popularity contest, whereby the most charismatic leaders are chosen. Often with little thought as to their effectiveness at governing. And while using charisma to influence people may seem like a pretty benign way to run a hierarchy, it is still a form of coercion. And just as onerous as any other form, especially if you are not blinded by your leaders' charm, which can happen if things don't go well under their rule.

    Beyond the three basics, religion has long been a way of getting people to willingly accept their placed at the bottom of hierarchies. And, in our modern world of mass media, propaganda has become an extremely effective way of controlling the population. In both cases, as Voltaire noted, if you can get people to believe in absurdities they will be willing to commit atrocities.

    Because of all this, the bottom of a hierarchy (and that's where most people live), is not a very pleasant place. And in our modern hierarchies, for many people, there is simply nowhere else to go. You can't even head for the hills, as they are already occupied by people also living in hierarchies.

    Another problem with hierarchies is that they love to grow. Even taking into account what I've said about diseconomies of scale, the people at the top still benefit by having more people below them, more people to tax. Living, as we do, on a finite planet this leads to trouble. First, hierarchical countries, with their drive to expand, do not make good neighbours, and this leads to conflict. War is expensive and destructive and for the people actually doing the fighting, pretty horrific. Second, the inevitable has finally happened and we as a species have grown to the point where we are running out of room, depleting non-renewable resources and destroying the bio-sphere on which we rely for the necessities of life.

    Co-optation of Our Hierarchies by Capitalism

    If all this wasn't bad enough (and it certainly is), most hierarchies on the planet today have been co-opted by capitalists and are devoted to the goals of capitalism—the accumulation of ever more wealth into the hands of the capitalists. Which is bringing us up against the limits of life on this finite planet even quicker and harder than otherwise would have happened.

    Capitalism goes hand in hand with industrialization and really came into its own during the last couple of centuries when heat engines, driven by burning fossil fuels, made possible production at much higher levels than when most everything had to be done using human or animal muscle power. This lead to a time of unprecedented material abundance in what we now call "the developed nations."

    There was a time, not too long ago, when this looked like the greatest thing that had ever happened, but burning all that coal, oil and natural gas have had some negative consequences. Beyond climate change and resource depletion, the primary consequences result from the fact that fossil fuels are non-renewable resources. We used the "lowest hanging fruit" first. By the early 1970s the energy cost of accessing what was left had increased to where it started to cause problems for our economies. Capitalism soon found itself in the early stages of collapse. Since then things have grown continually worse—the middle class has continually decreased in size and economic inequality between the bottom and top of our hierarchies has increased to an unprecedented degree.

    Still, capitalism has managed to maintain its hold on our governments, and I think that deserves a closer look. You might assume that your government is at the top of the hierarchy you live in. That has been true at many times in the past—with aristocracies, for instance. But today the situation is more complex.

    Representative democracies are a prime example. They are a particularly clever tool for giving the people the illusion that their government is for the people, by the people and of the people, when in reality it serves mainly the plutarchs—wealthy capitalists who sit quietly above the supposedly representative government, exercising a great deal of influence on its policies, solely for their own benefit.

    Pretty much everyone is supposed to have a vote in representative democracies, so how can this be? Easily—election campaigns are huge popularity contests. The way the mass media work today this makes them expensive endeavours and while politicians do accept donations from the working class, most of their financial support comes from the wealthy. Those donations come with strings attached, and politicians are expected to rule in such a way as to benefit the wealthy people who support them.

    Politicians do make election promises to attract support from the majority of voters, who are not rich. Once they get elected, the trick is to spend as little money and effort as possible on keeping those promises, keeping the voters somewhat happy while changing not the systems that support the plutarchs. Who, of course, provided the majority of financial support for their campaigns, and hopefully will continue to do so in the future.

    Another mechanism used by capitalists to increase their control of our societies has been to organize their businesses as corporations, and then gain those corporations rights similar to, and in some cases exceeding, those of people. This makes it harder for governments to regulate their activities.

    Over the last few decades "neoliberalism" has become the standard ideology of the great majority of governments the world over, be they democratic or totalitarian. The Wikipedia article on Neoliberalism says it is generally associated with policies of economic liberalization, including privatization, deregulation, globalization, free trade, austerity and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. Through these mechanisms our governments have been even more thoroughly co-opted by capitalism, giving businesses much more freedom to do as they will.

    Neoliberalism has been sold to the people by convincing us that whatever is good for business is good for us as well.

    There was a time, in the 1800s and early 1900s, when there was a very clear distinction between the working class and the upper classes. Working people knew quite well where their interests lay. But in the mid-twentieth century when the economy was growing very fast, some of the vast wealth that was being accumulated was allowed to trickle down to the working class. The result was that many people in the working classes came to see their interests as lying with the capitalists. They came to see themselves as "temporarily embarrassed millionaires", expecting to strike it rich "any day now". And so they began to vote with the rich, even though that is clearly not in their own best interest. And thus neo-liberalism was able to triumph. This continues even until today in some countries.

    But despite the neo-liberal propaganda that we all benefit, economic inequality has continued to grow, and more and more people are falling out the middle class, and out of the bottom of the economy altogether, first to become jobless and eventually to become homeless and often suicidal.

    Social Injustice and Structural Violence

    The inequality that is inherent to hierarchies results in social injustice and structural violence.

    Structural violence refers to "the avoidable limitations that society places on groups of people that constrain them from meeting their basic needs and achieving the quality of life that would otherwise be possible. These limitations, which can be political, economic, religious, cultural, or legal in nature, usually originate in institutions that exercise power over particular subjects. It is therefore an illustration of a power system wherein social structures or institutions cause harm to people in a way that results in 'maldevelopment and other deprivations'."

    There always seem to be groups of people in any hierarchial society who aren't really welcome and who are forcefully kept at or near the bottom level. These include the poor (working, jobless and homeless), women, BIPOC* and LGBTQ* people, those with physical and mental challenges, the aged, and probably others who I am forgetting. And of course, that's just what the rest of us are supposed to do—forget about these people and leave them to suffer.

    You can recognize structural violence when you see people at a higher level in a hierarchy complaining about just not being able to understand what those below them are complaining about, while the people at the lower level have a keen understanding of those above them. This occurs because those who are above have power over those below, and can simply tell them what to do without having to know anything much about them. Those at the lower level have no choice but to serve those above and, in order to do so successfully, have to understand the people above them very well.

    One clear example of this is when you see men saying that there is just no understanding women or keeping them happy. At the same time it is clear that our wives, mothers and daughters do a great job of keeping us happy. They put a lot of effort into understanding us in order to be able to do so, largely because they have no choice in the matter, while we, sitting at the top of our little family patriarchies, can easily get away with just not making the effort. Of course, this situation has improved quite a bit over the last century or so, but there is still a long way to go.

    Summing Up

    This has been a whirlwind tour of the issues with hierarchies, but I think I've hit on the high points:

    • There is a great deal of waste involved in running a hierarchy and this makes our overconsumption problem even worse, while only benefiting those at the top.
    • Our modern hierarchies are enabling capitalism, which is the main source of our overconsumption problems.
    • Economic inequality and social injustice are inherent to hierarchies and prevent the realization of billions of peoples' potential, which is much needed if we are to successful face the challenges ahead of us.

    Many people in the "collapse sphere" feel that we should not worry about "minor" social injustices, and instead focus on preparing for and adapting to the economic, resource, and environmental problems that are already far along the way to causing the collapse of our society. I disagree. Both social injustice and collapse result from the same issues inherent in our hierarchies and in capitalism. Any adaptation that doesn't address them both is sure to fail. Anyone who tells you different is playing "divide and conquer" games, and whether they want to admit it or not, what they really want is to keep the existing system going as long as possible—business as usual and damn the consequences.

    So, it's clear to me that hierarchies, especially when combined with capitalism, are not a good thing. Would it be possible to do without them? I think so, and in my next post I'll go into the details of how that might work.


    For those who aren't up on the jargon I've been using:
    *BIPOC = Black, Indigeous and People of Colour
    *LGBTQ = Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Queer


    During the last few months I've been reading a number of very interesting books, which bear upon what we are discussing. Here is a list of those books, along with a few that I've read previously, but that also have been a help.

    Debt, The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber

    Hierarchy in the Forest: the evolution of egalitarian behavior, by Christopher Boehm

    The Art of Not Being Governed, by James C. Scott

    Against the Grain, a deep history of the earliest states, by James C. Scott

    Living at the Edges of Capitalism: Adventures in Exile and Mutual Aid, by Andrej Grubacic

    The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow



    Links to the rest of this series of posts:
    Collapse, you say? / Time for Change

    Saturday, 5 February 2022

    What I've Been Reading, December 2021

    Links

    Above the Fold

    • Solidarity Networks, by Gods & Radicals
    • Seattle Solidarity Network
    • "Seattle Solidarity (“SeaSol”) is a volunteer network of working people who believe in standing up for our rights. Our goal is to support our fellow workers’ strikes and struggles, build solidarity, and organize to deal with specific job, housing, and other problems caused by the greed of the rich and powerful. Join us! Let’s fight to win."
    • Microsolidarity, by Richard D. Bartlett, Microsolidarity
      "In late 2018, Richard D. Bartlett published a proposal to start a "microsolidarity" group — a small mutual aid community for people to do a kind of personal development, in good company, for social benefit."
    • Courage Before Hope: A Proposal to Weave Emotional and Economic Microsolidarity
    • Microsolidarity: Update 2020
      "How To Weave Social Fabric-- 3 Essential Pillars For a New Mutual Aid Community"

    Miscellaneous

    Reactions to "The Dawn of Everything"

    • Everything we “know” about the rise of Man is wrong, by David Wineberg, Medium--The Straight Dope
      "For 350 years, it has been common knowledge that Man went from bands of hunter-gatherers, to pastoralists, to farming, to industry. In parallel, Man lived in families, in tribes, in villages and then in cities, as technology improved. Technology, the third parallel, took us from the stone age through the bronze age and the iron age to the industrial revolution. All neat, tidy and clearly separable. David Graeber and David Wengrow claim there is no evidence for this. In The Dawn of Everything, they show proof of an unbelievable variety of living styles, governance and intellectual activity all over the world and throughout time. It was never a straight line progression. It was never the result of technology. And possibly most stunning, the larger the population was did not also mean more restrictions, more crime, more laws, or more inequality. This is an important book."
    • All things being equal, by Nancy Lindisfarne Jonathan Neale, Ecologist
      Based on it's harsh criticism of the antropological establishment it was inevitable that someone would write a negative review of The Dawn of Everything. This review reads like the authors only read parts of the book and didn't understand most of those. The only point I agree with is that Graeber and Wengrow are largely blind to the ecological and resource limits faced by human societies on this planet.

    The Other News

    News that is being ignored by North American mass media

    Coronavirus

    Capitalism, Communism, Anarchy

    Food

    Genetic Engineering

    Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that this section was paid for by Monsanto, stop for a moment and understand that organic agriculture/food is a multi-billion dollar per year industry that relies on fear to get people to buy its product. Millions of dollars are spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are equally safe. Sadly neither method of agriculture is even remotely sustainable.

    • Panic-free GMOs, A Grist Special Series by Nathanael Johnson
      "It’s easy to get information about genetically modified food. There are the dubious anti-GM horror stories that recirculate through social networks. On the other side, there’s the dismissive sighing, eye-rolling, and hand patting of pro-GM partisans. But if you just want a level-headed assessment of the evidence in plain English, that’s in pretty short supply. Fortunately, you’ve found the trove."
      A series of articles that does a pretty good job of presenting the facts about GMOs. I plan to include one article from this series here each month.
    • Rat retraction reaction: Journal pulls its GMOs-cause-rat-tumors study, by Nathanael Johnson, Grist
      "Retractions are typically the result of big goofs and frauds -- but in this case, the problem was inordinate attention paid to inconclusive results."

    Practical Skills

    Debunking Resources

    These are of such importance that I've decide to leave them here on an ongoing basis.

    Pseudoscience, Quacks and Charlatans

    There is No God, and Thou Shall Have No Other Gods

    I don't think I've made any secret of the fact that I am an atheist, but I may not have made it clear that I think any sort of worship is a bad thing and that believing in things is to be avoided whenever possible. Indeed, I do not believe in belief itself. That's what the "Thou shall have no other gods" is about—it's not enough to quit believing in whatever God or Gods you were raised to believe in, but also we must avoid other gods, including material wealth, power and fame.

    Further, many people today (including most atheists) follow the religion of "progress", which is based on the belief that mankind is destined to follow a road that leads from the caves ever upward to the stars, and that however bad things seem today, they are bound to be better tomorrow due to technological advancement and economic growth. This is very convenient for those who benefit most from economic growth, but it is hardly based on any sort of science and leads to a great deal of confused thinking.

    • Surprises within latest data on decline of US Religion, by David Gamble, Medium-- Science and Critical Thinking
      " On 14th December 2021, Pew issued their latest update on the religious landscape in the US. For the non-religious, it appears to be very good news. The decline of religion in the US continues unabated."

    Poverty, Homeless People, Minimum Wage, UBI, Health Care, Affordable Housing

    • Let There Be Money, Joe Manchin, by Sharon Woodhouse, Medium
      "Bathtubs, Modern Monetary Theory, and UBI"
      Not sure how valid Modern Monetary theory is--I'd rather do away with money altogether.

    Books

    Fiction

    Wednesday, 5 January 2022

    Collapse You Say, Part 10/Time for Change, Part 1: Money

    Waves, rocks and ice on the Lake Huron shore

    Earlier in this series (Parts 5 and 6) I looked at overpopulation and overconsumption and concluded that while both are serious problems, overpopulation is going to take decades to solve, while overconsumption could be addressed quite quickly. By reducing our level of consumption, we would reduce our impact on the planet and give ourselves time to reduce our population.

    In my last post I looked at some of the unintended and negative consequences of the industrialization we've experienced over the last few centuries. I concluded that most of the blame for overconsumption can be laid squarely at the feet of capitalism, with its insatiable hunger to accumulate wealth, its inescapable need for endless growth, and its inability to tackle any problem that can't be solved by making a profit. These days some people are calling capitalism a "death cult", based on those characteristics and the fact that we live on a finite planet. I think they are quite right to do so.

    Clearly, the blame for overconsumption should not fall on the supposed innate greed and materialism of individual, ordinary people. The upper classes (mainly capitalists) are superlative consumers and do a great deal of harm themselves. And their marketing efforts have turned the rest of us into pretty good consumers, too. Turn off their incessantly blaring marketing machine and things would be quite different—reducing consumption would look at lot more doable. We'd have a real chance of solving both of our major problems (overpopulation and overconsumption), getting ourselves out of overshoot and avoiding at least part of the die-off that is currently looming ahead of us.

    It seems that at this point in this series of posts I am done trying to show that collapse is real and I'm ready to look at what we can do about it. And that is why I am changing the name of this series in the middle of it. It is, indeed "time for change". In truth, I probably should have made the name change starting at Part 7, but it's too late for that now.

    Of course, many people in the "collapse sphere" will tell you that what we face is a predicament, not a problem—in the sense that it can't be solved, only adapted to. To those folks I would say, relax—I agree. My idea of a solution to the problems facing us is for us to adapt to them, and that adaptation will probably look a lot like collapse to many of you. We need to have fewer people, all consuming at lower levels that can be sustained by the biosphere, and we must start using up non-renewable resources at a drastically lower rate, until we can manage to replace them with renewables. To quote John Michael Greer, we need to get by with LESS—less energy, less stuff, less stimulation (entertainment). If we choose to do nothing, we'll get there via a brutally hard and deep collapse. But if we deliberately work at adapting instead of trying to save "business as usual", we can get there by a much gentler route, with a lot less grief, and with a better outcome at the end. Still involving major changes to our supposedly "non-negotiable" lifestyles, though.

    At the end of my last post (months ago) I promised to tie up a couple of loose ends in my discussion of finance and government, and to talk about how to solve our overconsumption problem by getting rid of capitalism. Over these last few months, I've come up with a wealth of material on these topics and so what was to have been a single post will now be broken up into at least three: I'll be talking about money (finance) today, hierarchies (government) in my next post and what to do about capitalism in the one after that.

    Money

    Money is a tool and, like all technology, it is not neutral but is designed to be used by certain people for a certain purpose. Money is used by rich people to make more money—to accumulate wealth, and to control poor people. Sure, it can be adapted to other purposes, but I don't believe we can ever stop it from being used for those basic, inherent purposes.

    If you study basic economics, you'll be told that money has three primary uses: as a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. All three of those really just amount to keeping score in the complex game that is our economy. That score keeping is done in ways that facilitate the business of accumulating wealth. This helps those with lots of money get more of it, and works against those with little. We are told that not keeping score would be even worse, but the more I look into it, the less reason I see to believe that.

    Capitalism started out with capitalists using their own money to build infrastructure (factories, mines, railways, etc.) to build stuff, which could then be sold for a profit. This soon changed to using borrowed money to do the same. The banks did very well on that, and before long the other capitalists saw that it is possible to use money directly to make more money, dispensing with factories and production of physical goods. This is known as "financialization" and while there are still lots of factories, making lots of stuff (much of it unnecessary), the financial sector is in some ways the business success story of the last century.

    Unfortunately, our financial system creates money as debt, which must be paid back with interest. In order to do that, the economy must continually grow. If growth stops or even slows down, it collapses. At the same time, the eventual consequence of growth is also collapse.

    The other primary use of money is as a tool for social control. Everything we need has been monetized—the only way to obtain the necessities of life (and much else) is to pay for them with money. Only a very few people live self-sufficiently today, outside of this system. The rest of us need money to live, and a job to obtain that money. In capitalist societies, most of the value created by your work goes to the capitalists, with as little as possible going to you as wages. This makes it challenging to get ahead.

    During my lifetime, it stopped being possible to save up enough money to buy large ticket items like an education, a car, a house and so forth. For most people, especially those without rich parents, such things are necessities and can only be had by going into debt to get the required money up front. And it is getting harder and harder to pay back that debt. But that debt must be paid back is a strong value in our culture. To declare bankruptcy and effectively have your debts forgiven means losing essentially everything you have worked for. This leaves us in a position of being under the control of the banks, with very little that we can do about it.

    If you look closely, though, you'll see that while not paying debts has nasty consequences for the lower classes, people in the upper classes can often come to some other arrangement if their debts become too onerous. In particular, capitalists whose businesses fail often walk away with little or no consequences since those businesses are set up as corporations with "limited liability".

    So, it's pretty clear that in any society that uses money (keeps score) and makes accumulation of wealth a goal, the result will be ever growing inequality between the upper classes and everyone else. In the past, many societies that used money and debt, even without capitalism in the modern sense of the word, found that for the lower classes debt grew over the years until it crippled society. That was because the lower classes played an important part in those societies and when they were crushed under a mountain of debt, the whole society was negatively affected. It was necessary to have a "jubilee" every so often and forgive debts in order to get things working again.

    But under modern capitalism, that's never going to happen—the lower classes are, to an ever greater extent, seen as not having an important role to play. Much of traditional work has been replaced by automation. If we are crippled by debt, it doesn't immediately bring our whole society to a halt. Indeed, much of that debt is held by the upper classes, who see it as a benefit. For the rest of us, debt offers a means to allow us to continue consuming, borrowing money just to give it back to the capitalists, with little time for thought about long term consequences.

    Most of us are like fish swimming in a sea of money and monetary concerns, unaware that there is any alternative. We are certainly told that there is not. But we need to ask ourselves if money and this whole "keeping score" thing is beneficial or even necessary? Is there any way we could manage to get by without money?

    Economists will tell you that money was invented to get away from the inconveniences of barter. But anthropologists who have actually studied pre-monetary societies, would tell you that that is nonsense—barter was used rarely, mainly for trading with strangers. Inside a community, among people who know each other, there are ways of living without money or barter. We'll go into more detail on that in a bit.

    Conservative moralists, who have a great deal of influence these days, are concerned about "moral hazard"—telling us that keeping score using money is necessary to maintain fairness, and make sure that people don't take advantage of each other. In fact, very few people do take advantage. And keeping score mostly leads to growing inequality, which is in itself unfair.

    And, of course, accountants would have us believe that the whole of modern civilization would grind to a halt if their ledgers didn't balance.

    That's all very convenient for those at the top who actually do benefit, but most of these things could be eliminated without hurting the rest of us. And what's really necessary could be rearranged to benefit us and not just the rich.

    If we turn to the study of anthropology again, we find that quite frequently during our prehistory we lived in small egalitarian bands who did just fine without money and largely without keeping score. What little score keeping there was, was informal and aimed at censuring people who didn't share well, to prevent accumulation rather than facilitating it.

    For such hunter gatherers getting an adequate supply of protein was often challenging and that is one reason why hunting larger game was done enthusiastically, even though it was often not very successful. Hunters were expected to share the meat when they did make a kill, and generally did so, without expecting thanks or any special treatment for making this contribution.

    Scientists studying such societies have observed that altruism (sharing) is a strong part of the culture, and have been puzzled about how altruism could be selected for on an evolutionary basis. It would seem that any individual with an inclination to share would inevitably be taken advantage of by less altruistic people, and individuals with innate altruistic impulses would soon be selected out of the gene pool. And indeed they would have been, if selection was acting solely on individuals. But selection also acted on the level of bands, and bands whose members shared well did better and were selected for strongly enough that such behaviour was eventually evolved into human beings. Mutual aid is a powerful tool for achieving success in groups and a major factor in the evolution of many species, certainly including our own.

    Even today one can observe that there is a great deal of benefit to acting on a basis of mutual aid, working together altruistically in groups. In societies such as ours where there seems to be an ethos against altruism (a la Ayn Rand), people still do act altruistically, often as if compelled to do so. This tends to reduce the effectiveness of money as a control mechanism, and so it is not popular with those in power, but it still happens. And even in large capitalistic companies, in those cases where people are still working together in groups, you will find a co-operative, egalitarian culture, because it is the best way of getting the work done. Of course, management prefers to isolate workers, so as to better control them. Solidarity is a dangerous thing, from management's viewpoint.

    Hunter gatherers had very little in the way of possessions—their nomadic lifestyle didn't allow for much in the way of accumulation. So you might say that money would have been of little use to them anyway.

    But many tribal societies practicing herding or even sedentary agriculture, who had more in the way of possessions, and more opportunity to accumulate wealth, often got along without money or score keeping as well. In some such cultures, when you compliment another's possession, the owner is obligated to give you that possession. Strange as it seems to us, this is the basis of exchange in these societies and it works just fine for them. Since everyone is subject to the same rules, being greedy backfires very quickly.

    It has become clear to me that the concept of fairness is quite different between monetary and non-monetary cultures. Diametrically opposite, in fact.

    In our monetary society, fairness means playing by the rules, rules that are intended to facilitate accumulation. Successful people are expected to accumulate wealth. Indeed that is our definition of success—we are taught to admire such people, and to aspire to be like them.

    In pre-monetary societies, fairness meant behaving altruistically—sharing, being generous and serving the other people in your community rather than taking advantage of them. Because the groups were small, it was obvious to everyone when an individual failed to share and do their part, and such individuals faced censure from their fellows.

    If they had kept score you would see that, over time, the rest of the community came to be more and more indebted to skilled people. To our modern eyes, it might seem like the less skilled were taking advantage of the more highly skilled, but they didn't see it that way. Indeed it was frowned upon for successful people to put on airs in such cultures, or to use their skills to accumulate wealth. They considered it their responsibility to support their community. It was seen as just what human beings do, to the extent of their abilities. And everyone expected that their needs would be seen to by their community, to the extent that was possible. The result of all this was strongly beneficial to the community as a whole, including those we might see as being taken advantage of.

    If that sounds like communism to you —from each according to their ability and to each according to their needs—you're right. That is exactly what it was, and a good thing, too.

    Occasionally, in our lengthy pre-historic past, the idea of money (or at least the concept of credit) was adopted by various cultures. It caught on pretty quickly because it could be used for all the "advantages" we've been discussing here. In some cases there were also built in mechanisms for redistributing wealth—things like potlatches, funeral feasts and so forth, so that inequality didn't grow destructively, and runaway growth didn't have its inevitable environmental effects.

    In other cases where inequality was allowed to accumulated across generations, the mass of people soon caught on and rebelled, reverting to more equitable ways of organizing things. In still other cases, societal collapse resulted. And finally, in cases where neither of those things happened, you ended up with the societies that eventually developed into to our modern capitalist civilization. Sadly, by the time those who were on the losing end of such arrangements realized what was going on, it was too late—those at the top of the organization were firmly in control, and not interested in changes that would impinge negatively on them. We were stuck in the sort of societies we currently have. Which brings us to the subject of hierarchies, which I will get to in my next post.

    What I am intending to suggest here is that there are ways of supplying the needs of a society without causing inequality to grow. And without needing the economy to grow endlessly beyond the capacity of the planet to support. The sort of examples I've mentioned here are only a very few of the ways this might be done and I believe we may yet come up with new ideas that work even better.

    In closing, I should probably (for the sake of completeness, but with little hope of achieving it) make a few comments on markets and property.

    Markets

    At the most basic level, markets exist to place a value on goods and services. But never forget—the value of goods only needs to be determined because we are keeping score, and using money to do it. In any case, the supposed magic of the "free market" is largely theoretical. At best, it can only work when all the players involved have roughly equal power. In capitalism, the capitalists have considerably more power than workers and consumers, and love markets because they are open to manipulation and control. Being able to game the market actually creates many of the problems inherent to capitalism.

    Property and Ownership

    The concept of private property is central to enabling the accumulation of wealth. The strong take what they wish, have the power to hold onto it, and use it to generate further wealth. Civilization consists largely of having laws to protect the private property of the rich and a police force to enforce them.

    In such a system, owners have the right to abuse their property and deplete its resources, with consequences that are currently beginning to come due the world over (climate change, habitat destruction, resource depletion). In a sustainable society, land and resources would be the property of the community as a whole and that ownership would be about stewardship not exploitation.

    We should also be clear that there is a distinction here between private and personal property. Personal property consists of items that you use in daily life (like your toothbrush, and your shoes and clothes). A community might elect to extend personal property rights to tools, homes and garden plots. But if you take property rights much further, you end up with individuals having the right to exploit land and resources to their own benefit and the detriment of the community and planet as a whole. Which is exactly what we want to avoid.


    During the last few months while I've been dragging my feet about writing for this blog, I've been reading a number of very interesting books, which bear upon what we are discussing. Here is a list of those books, along with a few that I've read previously, but that also have been a help.

    Debt, The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber

    Hierarchy in the Forest: the evolution of egalitarian behavior, by Christopher Boehm

    The Art of Not Being Governed, by James C. Scott

    Against the Grain, a deep history of the earliest states, by James C. Scott

    Living at the Edges of Capitalism: Adventures in Exile and Mutual Aid, by Andrej Grubacic

    The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow



    Links to the rest of this series of posts: Collapse, you say?