Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What should be done (IV)

Back in July (in this post and this one) I was wondering how one should live in a system like ours, late capitalism (or, as I called it there, "digital capitalism"), which I considered unfair, corrupted and non conductive to human flourishing and the development of the higher good (whatever that may be, to condemn our social organization requires just that we agree producing as many material goods as possible is not it). Before finding out, I felt I had to identify what were the distinguishing features of said system (which you can find here), and the "moral valence" of each of those features, assuming the ones morally deemed more corrupting would need to be changed.

There were three features I left unanalysed then, and which I'm not going to cover as they are "dependent variables" (the degree of technological progress, which thanks to automation, cheap and abundant energy and ubiquitous communication allow for the satisfaction of everybody's basic needs without anybody having to work much for it; globalization in terms dictated by big corporations, that is, enabling the almost free flow of merchandise and capital; and the rise of information and digitization of every conceivable experience, with marginal cost of that information approaching zero) that have attained a life of their own, and their reversal would require enormous societal costs (may be a bit less so for the second one -corporate-led globalization- I may revisit that one further down the road).

The conclusion of that study was that two features stood up as the more morally problematic: the fact that in all times capitalism has succeeded by forcing everybody in society to contribute as much as they could to the production of material goods (that's almost it's definition, specially according to Graeber Debt: the first 5000 years summary in Wikipedia) and the main mechanism it developed to enforce that compulsion, the labor market (the form that compulsion takes is by making it more or less explicitly mandatory to sell one's time in exchange for a salary -or a number of clients' revenue streams if you choose the route of self-employment, under the guise of an apparently free agreement whose negotiating terms that are designed to be abusively favourable to the employer/ client). The other mechanism it had developed (commodity production) was bad insofar as it was a paradigmatic behavior of the warped priorities identified in the first point (material production maximization), was most likely to disappear, and was not to be mistaken with the labour market asymmetries (I mentioned that considering work as a commodity was one of Marx main conceptual errors in a work richly plagued by them... the problem with learning your politics from a journo).

So, if those are the really big problems of our current socioeconomic system, what has to be done starts to become a bit more clear: the only acceptable course for a man is try to change that system so it a) does not force everybody to devote all of their energy to produce material goods (to earn more money and possess more wealth, but only wealth that can be measured in monetary terms and thus exchanged for money), which in turn requires that b) people are set free from the need to sell their time in a labour market which they approach in a situation of utter helplessness (as, if they do not play by the rules, they would be left dispossessed, entirely outside of the social hierarchy and even under the risk of starvation -if not literal, in terms of prestige, access to health care, etc.-)

Before looking in more detail how those pursuits (or pursuit, as you can not eliminate one without seriously weakening the other) may look like in practice, it may be worthwhile to review the revolutionary movements of the past 250 years, and under what premises they tried to change society, as we may learn something from their struggle (and their in the end entirely unsatisfactory results). Applying our framework it is immediately evident that they focused on the wrong features of the system, targeting private property (protected by stable laws) and money (a social technology for keeping track of debts regardless of social background or group belonging) as the sources of inequality of their time, when both are relatively old concepts, and thus capitalism is in no way dependant on them (money was discovered in Lydia about 600 BC, and has been around since then, and private property securely protected by law may be even more ancient, almost coeval with writing, 3000 years BC). Indeed, the societies built on those premises (no money and no private property, at least regarding the "means of production") did not escape from the need to produce as many material goods as possible (and not being able to produce as many as their competitor is what made them for in the end), only with the wrong set of incentives (trying to do it by coercion enforced by a bureaucratic elite proved to be less efficient than making each man his own foreman, or his own taskmaster, as capitalism succeeded in doing).

As it happens, we do not need to get overly creative to see how the two main undesirable features of late capitalism can be overcome, as the idea that can end them has already been around for some time. If you can guarantee people that they can subsist comfortably without having to work, keeping a modest amount of thingies in the process, you suddenly weaken both the impetus to overproduce that is damaging so much the environment (as now we force people to produce even if there is no demand, and even less need, for their product) and the asymmetry that forces them to undersell their time in conditions they find barely preferable to full slavery. There has been a (quite modest and muted so far) claim for that kind of guarantee going on for a few years, under the name Basic Income (BI), or Universal Basic Income (UBI) to differentiate it from other claims more limited in scope that propose paying only certain segments of the population (unemployed, or employed but below certain salary threshold). I will be talking in another post about how it may look like, where the money would come from, and give consideration to some traditional arguments for and against it.

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