Sunday, January 27, 2013

Dependence + Independence = Interdependence. But How?

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:
1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
Douglas Adams

Totally depending on others for your survival, but not being able to give anything back is not a pleasant state of affairs. Even people we might call scroungers, who appear to contribute nothing, are likely to be of the opinion that their personality, or friendship, or some other quality of theirs is a ‘sufficient’ contribution (which it may well be), i.e., even scroungers need to be needed. But the infirm, the handicapped, the seriously injured, etc., totally dependent on others for their survival, are most often frustrated by their inability to give back, to return the favour. This may result in a curious form of denial, where the dependent person is angry at the world, and especially at his/her caregivers. Of course, there are many shades of nuance involved with total dependency, not least of which is the frustration of being imprisoned by one’s inability, and there are people who love being taken care of when ill, but I strongly suspect total dependency is unpleasant, at the level of contribution, for most who experience it, and that the dynamic just sketched is no idle fantasy.

In contradistinction to this, being independent, or, expressed differently, being able to contribute meaningfully to society, large or small, is a far happier state of affairs, generally speaking. Why? My answer is that humans are social animals and thus need to belong (as I’ve argued before). This answer suggests that the ‘independence’ I just described is a form of dependence. To be independent, to be an able contributor whose contributions are valued/rewarded by society, is to rely on a society which values and rewards your contributions. Nothing makes sense in isolation.

(Note: I am not talking about the lone woodsman surviving in the wild apart from all human society. Such independence can be seen as a skill set that depends on the rest of nature operating within certain parameters. Independence and dependence are slippery concepts, interdependence is perhaps the more helpful term.)

Let’s visit Charles Eisenstein’s observations on community. Charles once made attempts to establish community in his local neighbourhood by inviting neighbours over to cook together, to watch the Super Bowl together, to try and gel with each other. The attempt failed. His initiating analysis, that people complain about community breakdown and subsequent crime rates, insecurity and isolation etc., and thus want community’s return, is sound enough. His attempt to learn how to rebuild community by trying to do so both logical and noble. So why did something fail that everyone wanted to be a success?

The failure to build a little community, in his eyes, rested on the cold fact that the people involved didn’t actually need each other. There was no interdependency of a sufficiently unifying intensity. All they could do as a group was consume together. Not one member of the group depended on any other member for their survival. Modern society provides us with what we need via money and wages, not favours and return favours among friends and neighbours in a tight-knit community. Apart from artistic ventures (like being in a rock band) or raising children, there’s not much left to do together but consume the glittering produce of an anonymous society. This does not give rise to community in the sense people seem to long for. We can manufacture desire, but can we manufacture the type of need that creates and binds communities? Should we strive to recreate binding interdependencies?

If it is true that humans are social animals, that they thus have a basic need to contribute to and be needed by the social group, should we then dismantle all technology that comes between us and genuine community? For me, this question is highly relevant to the RBE idea, as a global RBE utterly destroys existential angst and thus the intense need for each other Charles asserts strong community requires. Can humans be ‘happy’ if the lack of need for each other keeps them apart from each other in some significant way? Would an RBE be counter to human biology?

I repeat, independence and dependence are slippery concepts. The first two paragraphs of this post set them out in a somewhat binary presentation that I have then tried to blur. This may have been a little confusing, so I’m now going to state this post’s purpose as two questions:

1 Are our social interdependencies static in their nature?
2 Is there a basic, natural state of affairs for humans we ignore at our peril?

As something of a relativist, I don’t like seeking clear answers to such questions, but do see the value of openly exploring and pondering them. Here goes.

There have been many types of human society, beginning with the hunter gatherers; through to horticultural societies; tribal, pre- and early states; city states; nation states and also, I’d argue, the corporation (which has very close ties to the state form I believe). The ways in which humans express and live out their need for each other within these societal forms changes with each societal form. This is not to say that our biology changes (though it does), rather that the social structures in which it finds expression give rise to different external manifestations of biological drives, including our understandings of and relationships with those drives. That is, human behaviour is a consequence of multiple factors, not just of biology.

There never has been nor will there ever be a utopia. So while it strongly appears that one relatively stable constant of human nature is that we are social animals, while it may indeed remain true that we need to be needed, like to be liked and love to be loved, what seems to me to be a hiding to nothing is an attempt to recreate (from the idealised past) or create (for the idealised future) the conditions we consider somehow perfectly suited to our biology. There are too many variables, too much variety for this to result in anything other than an oppressive attempt to control people, to force as many of us as possible to become ‘good citizens’ of whatever ideology.

On the other hand, inevitable change demands wise and intelligent adaptation. So it is equally true, utopia or not, that the way things are now, the way we have become used to, cannot be sustained indefinitely. I don’t know if a ‘return’ to a low-tech, horticultural society is upon us for reasons of entropy, peak oil, planetary carrying capacity, etc., or if what awaits us is more akin to a techno-utopia (or dystopia); I am not sufficiently qualified to judge. But I strongly believe that humans will muddle through whatever new forms emerge, and that their behaviours will adjust accordingly. Should The Venus Project’s basic analysis be sound, should a non-monetary system be the most intelligent arrangement in light of current technological developments, ‘community’ and interdependencies generally will emerge in accordance with the conditions of an RBE. Our needs for social interaction and interdependency will take on new forms, find new expressions that will give rise to slightly different social challenges, slightly different social pleasures and conventions, all rooted in our biology of course, but blooming and finding expression in new-ish circumstances.

In short, human nature is something of a red herring. There is no perfect social construction for our biology (social engineering), any more than there is a perfect human biology (eugenics). Should an RBE future indeed unfold, humans will adapt to it, change as a consequence of it, and enjoy and be irritated by it just as in all other social arrangements. Independence and dependence are not absolutes, nor is a particular type of community, nor is a particular set of human social expressions. Leaving self-destruction aside for a moment, my sense is that the trajectory of our progress is towards an RBE, simply because the market system that relies on wages and perpetual economic growth has been rendered redundant by automation and cybernetics, as well as natural limits to economic growth. Consumerism is as ‘true’ to human nature as is communism or fascism, and will go the way of the dodo in due course. This is not to say that the RBE is better or worse than anything else, but that circumstances tend humanity in its direction. It may be that our lock-step addiction to entrenched cultural norms means the dissonance between the pressure of history and our inability to adapt intelligently to that pressure results in our self-destruction, but that would be a failure of adaptation, not (necessarily) a misreading of the pressure of history.

Nostalgia is always with us, it seems. We are imaginative creatures and can idealise anything we want to, including past and possible future communities. Interdependence is a fact of nature, of Universe, but we cannot extrapolate from it some correct and eternal social form that’s ‘just so’ for all human beings.

[C]onservative reformers were to sigh for the social harmonies of a vanished age, which ‘knyt suche a knott of colaterall amytie betwene the Lordes and the tenaunts that the Lorde tendered his tenaunt as his childe, and the tenaunts againe loved and obeyed the Lorde as naturellye as the child the father’.
R. H. Tawney (1922: 68)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Money Talks, Bullshit Walks (or, Scarcity: a New Look at an Old Devil)

In Aztec, the notion of deference is regarded as crucial. Consequently, according to Nida, ‘it is impossible to say anything to anyone without indicating the relative degree of respect to which the hearer and speaker are entitled in the community’ (1964:95).
Mona Baker, In Other Words (2011:95)
A friend of mine used the expression that is this post’s title a little while ago, and it struck me as a true statement. As someone concerned with the resource-based economy direction (demoting money and promoting wealth), I recognise that this simple truism deserves my attention, which it has had these last few months. In what follows, I’m going to try and associate the validity of this truism with both capitalism (which is in a state of advanced breakdown in my opinion), and the change of direction humanity is stumblingly bringing about.

When we commit to something, we invest in it. If that investment is to mean something, both to ourselves and those around us, losing what we’ve invested must be painful. Because of money’s importance, when we risk our money investing in something, people recognise that we believe in that something (unless we are compulsive gamblers or otherwise of unsound mind). Thus the risk of losing something valuable causes us to carefully appraise what of our scarce resources we invest in which projects and endeavours. For believers in a resource-based economy, this begs the question: does abundance mean we won’t take anything seriously? Put another way, must things be scarce to be valued?

The most obvious example to help us look at this is air. It is abundantly available and has a price of zero. Accordingly, we might argue, we have treated it rather cavalierly. Only as we have started to notice that its delicate ability to sustain life on earth is threatened by our reckless treatment of it have we begun to try and figure out how to look after it. In other words, as the abundance we earlier perceived doesn’t seem to be the whole truth about air, as scarcity enters the picture, so we treat the item with increasing respect and wisdom. The same, it could be argued, goes for planet earth.

The economy

There is a curious paradox here. Economics presents nature as a subset of the economy (concealed in "other inputs"), as an inexhaustible supply of idle resources to be converted, via labour and machines, into goods and services, then sold as scarce commodities via supply and demand (price discovery) processes. (If this assumption were dropped, perpetual economic growth could not be held to be both desirable and possible.) We might express this as follows: abundance + labour & capital = scarcity. For this to hold, labour and machines must be limiting in some way, a sort of conduit through which idle resources must pass to become goods and services. We might look at this conduit as partly consisting of time; even if we could work 24/7, we have to go to market and have time to consume what we buy there. That is, we can’t only earn and produce, we have to spend and consume too. Society needs time to demand/consume what it supplies/produces, as it were.

Demand is an area of economics which is also abundant, or insatiable. Indeed, economics is the study of how best to distribute scarce goods and services to an infinitely greedy humanity, goods and services which are scarce precisely because humans are insatiably greedy. To expand on the earlier equation then: abundance + labour & capital = scarcity (because of demand abundance). Scarcity is thus inescapable, if we accept this sort of thinking. Scarcity appears to emerge within the pincers of posited abundance. In other words, scarcity and abundance happily coexist in economic theory. They are not mutually exclusive.

Of course, the other reason for scarcity in the price system is that if supply exceeds demand (which might be a definition of economic abundance), price falls to zero (‘I couldn’t give it away!’). Suppliers must limit the amount of stuff they bring to market to keep price/profit as high as possible. In other words, for there to be prices above zero, demand must exceed supply, generally speaking. (Let’s not forget the advertising industry that manufactures artificial demand.) In short, the picture is somewhat clouded, although the simple mechanics sketched above make the necessity of scarcity to the market system very clear.

I have come to think of abundance and scarcity as matters of perception and organisation (again, we mustn’t forget advertising). For example, the question, ‘How much is enough?’ cannot reasonably be answered. There is no specific enough. Against what yardstick of what phenomenon? Happiness (immeasurable)? Health (immeasurable)? Security (immeasurable)? So when dealing with the problems of scarcity and abundance, we are not dealing with absolutes. To draw on the preceding paragraph, abundance need not be about infinite amounts, only amounts that consistently exceed demand. I don’t think economics has quite mastered scarcity and abundance, and by logical extension, value. There is much for us to learn and discover here.

And yet the truth of “money talks, bullshit walks” remains. Should we seek to initiate a resource-based economy at all? How would humans value things if there were more than enough of everything? Look how we’re treating the earth. The Perpetual Growth paradigm says nature can keep on providing idle resources to be turned into ever expanding amounts of goods and services forever, that planet earth can take everything we throw at it (or throw away on it). I’m with those who believe infinite growth (of the economic realm) in a finite system is impossible. Unless we treat the ecosystems which engender and support us with intelligence, wisdom and respect, we have it in our power to destroy ourselves. A better model for envisioning economic activity might look something like this:

Let’s recap the conundrum. On the one hand, we have the current economic paradigm which sees abundance on the input side and scarcity on the output side. On the other, we have a possible future system which sees scarcity on the input side and abundance on the output side. If the reason we are trashing earth’s ecosystems is because of the flawed assumption of input abundance, does it not follow that we will trash ‘goods and services’ if they are abundant? Not necessarily. It all depends on how we raise our kids, how we educate ourselves, and what we see as the function of ‘goods and services’ in a resource-based economy.

In a RBE, there are no goods and services. There is no market. Things like housing, clothing, computing, communication, energy, travel and education would be available with no price tag and are therefore not goods and services. There can be no consumerism, no ‘I want the latest iGadget’, no keeping up with the Joneses (as we experience them today; there will always be the pursuit of novelty and excitement). A full-on, global RBE is only possible if people really understand the benefit of treating, with wisdom and respect, the systems that make their prosperity possible. That’s the idea, at least. In the way we learned to perceive air as a scarce resource, that treating the air with respect is good for humanity generally, so too can people learn to treat housing, transportation, gadgets etc. with respect, even if there is no private property. As in the current paradigm, there would be no binary choice between absolute scarcity or abundance; humanity would deal with scarcity and abundance from a different mindset.

So what happens to money? I think something like it will still be around, albeit in a vastly different form and with a vastly different role, perhaps unrecognisable to our eyes, perhaps something equivalent to kudos or deference (as in the quote that opens this post). “Money (or some related equivalent) talks, bullshit walks” will still apply. There will be respect, accomplishment, social standing (though not as class-based as today’s), expertise, reputation, and other ‘rewards’ for social contribution. Only, the ‘price’ for losing one or all of them won’t be starvation on the streets.

We might argue that these immeasurable social phenomena will be the new money, the only remaining social currency. They are of course with us today, so are nothing new. They will be scarce and require hard work to build up and earn. People in an RBE will not lightly risk this new money, just as we don’t lightly risk contemporary money. Because we are social animals with strong preferences and dislikes as well as very varied ambitions, this aspect of value and scarcity will never leave us. But the abundance the RBE idea references is a more sensible abundance than that assumed of nature today, and is certainly not some absolute, infinite abundance.

As I have repeatedly stated, an RBE is a direction, not a destination. This article is thus somewhat out of keeping with recent posts. I wanted to return to RBE proper, as it were, because I still believe the direction, which is essentially the prioritizing of human concern and environment in the context of reasonable sustainability, is the only game in town that makes lasting sense. It deserves more attention from more people than it is getting, not because it is a finished idea we can implement tomorrow, but because it is an open idea that is both wise and intelligent, if still in its infancy.