Sunday, October 18, 2009

Resource-based economies in history?

Classless, moneyless, and greed-less. But what really marks RBEs out is their members' ability to perceive abundance where we might see scarcity. I have argued before that scarcity is a kind of invention, a consequence of the decision to begin farming, to settle down and cut up land into portions owned by individuals, and would like to elaborate on that idea here. Farming, though a simple thing to us now, was a radical departure from nomadic hunter-gathering, and had profound long-term consequences unknowable to our ancestors.

When you start having to defend your stuff against the have-nots and the “not-like-yous” you start to see things as problematically scarce, or rather to sense that scarcity is an insoluble problem. Whereas before, as hunter-gatherers, the guiding motif for humans was sharing amongst all members whatever was to be shared, even if it meant hunger and suffering until a more plentiful supply was found, after farming the fact of having a static home-base made hoarding possible. You don't have to drag your accumulated goods around with you on your nomadic wanderings. Furthermore, hoarding against the ravages of winter, against poor crop yield, pestilence etc., becomes a sensible thing to do, and led to population expansion, villages, cities, and eventually nation states. Scarcity was born, scarcity, that is, in the economic sense we know it today; infinite wants versus finite resources. It had a direct effect on our behaviours, rewarding those that were, prior to farming, unhelpful. For more on this see Marshall Sahlins (The Original Affluent Society).

So this classical definition of scarcity – ignoring for a moment the impossibility of infinite wants – is a direct consequence of a particular societal design, not some incontrovertible law of nature or physics. Scarcity in the sense we experience it today is the consequence of a decision our forebears made thousands of years ago. A resource-based economy is a model that takes this into account. It posits the idea that redesigning societal infrastructure – from cities, streets and transport to education, law and politics – to deliver goods and services in abundance, would change the way humans behave. The idea predicts the end of greed, of poverty, of hoarding, of ownership, of most crime, and of war. These seem like lofty, even hopelessly idealistic goals, but the ambition is not without precedent.

In “St. Kilda, Island on the Edge of the World,” (MacLean, 1972) the reader is taken through a thorough and intelligent account of a people who lived without money on a very harsh island off the north-west coast of Scotland for over 2,000 years. They seem to have displayed no greedy behaviours, shared what resources they had, and experienced no crime except that visited upon them by outsiders. Only when they were exposed to money and the "outside world" did they slowly become strangely dependent on charity, lazy, unmotivated and broken. In “Mutual Aid,” (Kropotkin, 1902) we learn of the Aleoute, an Eskimo people enjoying a crime rate of one murder in 100 years in a population of 60,000, of one common law offence in 40 years. I'm not sure if the Aleoute model was a RBE, but free market capitalism it was not. On the island chain of Atua Motu, Jacque Fresco – the chief proponent of transitioning to a RBE – met a people who shared everything, had no crime, an abundance of the basics, endless curiosity and inventiveness, and no medium of exchange.

The question we can only answer by addressing it scientifically, is whether a medium of exchange and complex trade are necessary preconditions for high culture. In that St. Kildans wrote poetry and philosophy, considering the hunter-gatherer traps so complex anthropologists could not re-construct them for museum display, considering the observations of Thomas Huxley, early indications are that high culture would progress and flourish once we have done away with material problems and scarcity, and no longer need a medium of exchange.

As I have said elsewhere, a RBE can only come about globally, and willingly too. I seek no bloody revolution, want to inspire no righteous anger, no rage, no war on the streets. Only an open and unprejudiced willingness to test the concept and its assumptions will yield any chance of lasting success. We don't know what level of success such a scientific approach to designing a socioeconomic model can have, but trying is the only way to find out. We need to divert sufficient material and intellectual resources to this effort for its proper testing, for if it works, it would be a wonderful thing, and a stable solution to much of what ails us. The Venus Project have plans for how we can do just that.

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