Thursday, October 22, 2009

Radical is the new normal – why money must go

Some like it radical, and are quickly attracted to the strange and the extreme. Most don’t. Typically radical change sounds alien, unsettling, silly, ill-conceived, and so receives little close attention. Therefore, the idea that money itself is the problem, that we should be drawing up tentative plans on how to ween ourselves off it, seldom makes sense to bewildered victims of those passionately attached to the proposal. This little missive is my attempt at making the idea seem sensible, and though fringe in terms of numbers of supporters, mainstream in that it actually adheres to logic and sound science. It is my attempt at making something radical seem ordinary.

Progress and change are always taking place. Instead of looking at the current financial crisis as being a couple of years old, or 30 years old, or maybe as old as America in its making, look at human cultural development over the millennia, starting with the emergence of homo sapiens sapiens. Track the (painfully slow) changes from hunter-gatherers to farmers, from villages to tribes, from tribes to clans and so up to nation states and international trade. Note also that our ability to care about those not like us; non-family members, non-tribe, foreigners etc., is improving. We are getting better at understanding one another. Ethical evolution is palpable and growing. The popularity of Lennon’s Imagine is evidence of this, as are animal rights. Seen over the great stretch of our time on Earth, change is clearly taking place now at an incredible pace. Radical is indeed the new normal. In that light, please consider the following list:
1. Money is just a tool, a tool designed by us do deal with two phenomena: scarcity and ownership. Money is a fantastic means for trading widely differing goods and services, and transferring ownership from person to person. But scarcity is as much perception as reality (see below) and can now be, thanks to technological development, largely removed if we organize society along RBE lines. Ownership is merely a particular cultural relationship with stuff. This relationship is changing (very slowly) to the idea of “access.” Access can be lifelong (it certainly need be no longer than that!), and does not need money and complex property law to organize and stabilize. Witness Zip cars in New York, and Google. No one “buys” access to Google, which is, along with other search engines, a preposterously powerful search tool. Scarcity and ownership could be designed out of society. Without them money becomes superfluous.

2. Money may well be a powerful tool for economic activity, but it also comes with costs. You can indeed “solve” the problem of distributing scarce goods and services with money, but at the cost of inhibiting true abundance, while creating wealth, health and education divisions, and motivating corruption. Money necessarily perpetuates competition over scarce resources, applying little to no pressure to resolve scarcity problems cooperatively and fairly. It means, necessarily, rich and poor. The rich of course protect their interests. This means ideas that might introduce a more egalitarian distribution of resources get little attention, and have little hope of being implemented. Money means increasingly entrenched divisions, both nationally and internationally. The West is rich because other parts of the world are (kept) poor. This is unnecessarily unfair, and yet a seemingly unavoidable cost of money.

3. Humans are not greedy and selfish, they can be greedy and selfish. Read “The Original Affluent Society” and “St. Kilda, Island at the Edge of the World” for examples of systems that do not inspire humans to greed and selfishness. Competition is also merely one tactic (a poor one) for survival, not THE tactic. Cooperation is more effective. See “Mutual Aid” by Kropotkin for more on this. Money inspires competitive behaviours, which tend to atomize society, break it down into warring factions. We are a social animal. We are not wolverines.

4. With money you must have enough to survive. You must exchange your labour for a wage to buy shelter, energy, transport and sustenance. In short you need a job. As many people as possible need a job. Technological developments that reduce the need for humans in the work place are seen as threatening. They ought to be welcomed. In a resource-based economy all technologies that take more of the load from our shoulders would mean more freedom to pursue our interests. Right now such technological advances that effect human labour are most often disruptive.

5. GDP growth is a must with money. We must consume as much as possible to feed our need for money, profit and “growth.” This is not good for the ecosystem. A resource-based economy can effortlessly place the ecosystem (and human dignity too) front and center. This is obviously a necessity, since money is only possible with humans around to use it, and humans are only possible in an ecosystem that can support them. Where money reigns, it reigns supreme. By design it has to make most decisions and steer culture where it wants culture to go. Things have to make financial sense before they get done.

6. Cheap low-quality goods are an inefficient use of resources. You only need low-quality goods where you have poor people. You only have poor people with money at the helm.

7. Built-in obsolescence is a curse only money can have inspired. Products are designed to have short lives to keep people spending. This is insanity. We only have the one planet.

8. Money tends to make us think of success as being related to owning lots of shiny and big things, as if that meant happiness. We all know it doesn’t and yet, like programmed machines, we all insist that money is essential to survival. It isn’t. It is only essential to monetary systems and the status quos that benefit from them.

9. We don’t do things just because we hope money lies on the other side of our effort. Humans are not “lazy by nature.” The people of St. Kilda lived for over 2,000 years on a very inhospitable island off the north coast of Scotland without money “forcing” them to do what had to be done. They wrote poetry and philosophy too. Only when money arrived in the pockets of tourists from the mainland did the island’s inhabitants become lazy and dependent on charity.

This list is not exhaustive. I have kept it short to make it (hopefully) more readable. If you spend enough time analyzing the connotations of a resource-based economy, you realize it is an idea worthy of testing. The evidence we have available to us now suggests strongly it would work. We ought to find out.


Edwardo said...

Yours is a very thought provoking post, as I imagine the others are as well. If I had the time, I would offer something substantial by way of a response. Unfortunately, that will have to wait for another time.

THD Russell said...

I await that day...