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Technological Progress in a Market Economy is Self-Terminating and Ends in Collapse

photo of Øyvind Holmstad

Øyvind Holmstad
19th March 2015


Read the whole essay by JMG here.

At this point it may be helpful to sum up the argument I’ve developed here:

a) Every increase in technological complexity tends also to increase the opportunities for externalizing the costs of economic activity;

b) Market forces make the externalization of costs mandatory rather than optional, since economic actors that fail to externalize costs will tend to be outcompeted by those that do;

c) In a market economy, as all economic actors attempt to externalize as many costs as possible, externalized costs will tend to be passed on preferentially and progressively to whole systems such as the economy, society, and the biosphere, which provide necessary support for economic activity but have no voice in economic decisions;

d) Given unlimited increases in technological complexity, there is no necessary limit to the loading of externalized costs onto whole systems short of systemic collapse;

e) Unlimited increases in technological complexity in a market economy thus necessarily lead to the progressive degradation of the whole systems that support economic activity;

f) Technological progress in a market economy is therefore self-terminating, and ends in collapse.

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Posted in Anti-P2P, Technology | No Comments »

An inevitable collision: Centralizing networks against personal autonomy

photo of Manuel Ortega

Manuel Ortega
13th March 2015


warm_bodies-wide

In recent years we have been through “a zombie attack” against the socialization and culture born in the Internet. This is known as the stage of recentralization, whose best-known proponent is the FbT-model. This is a socialization model that cut off conversations, wherever they took root, and the birth of new identities and the abundance of the Internet generally. There was no lack of strategies, and in fact, the distributed world worked for the creation of vaccine against the virus. But the response to this attack finally came from something much more basic and fundamental: Personal autonomy. Already, the debate on net topologies is a debate about the autonomy you have to participate in the creation of information, the definition of your agenda, and the possibilities you have to be authentic. The collision was inevitable, and — just like in the great movie “Warm Bodies,” something was alive in the zombies, they weren’t completely dead — our desire for personal autonomy was still alive. This explains the birth of, perhaps not numerous, but more and more islands in the net that are betting on a distributed world. The key words of the future are autonomy and sovereignty.

Translated by Steve Herrick from the original (in Esperanto)

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Posted in Anti-P2P, Culture & Ideas, Networks, Open Models, Original Content, Peer Property | No Comments »

Defending Free Software Against Privatizers

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
13th March 2015


Christoph Hellwig

Christoph Hellwig

How can you protect a commons of software code from free riders who attempt to take it private for their commercial gain?

The traditional answer has been copyright-based licenses such as the General Public License, a legendary legal hack on copyright law that ensures the perpetual “shareability” of all licensed code. The GPL requires that third parties make any derivative software programs freely available to everyone and that they use the same license, thus ensuring that all future downstream uses of the code will also remain shareable.

But what happens if a company simply ignores the GPL and continues to free ride?  We are about to find out.

After a long period of alleged non-compliance with the GPL, the software firm VMware is being sued by the Software Freedom Conservancy, a nonprofit home and infrastructure for free, libre and open source software projects. Most companies respect the GPL and other open source licenses, which is why this lawsuit is a rare enforcement action.

The Software Freedom Conservancy reports that it attempted to reason with VMWare, a $36 billion company traded on the New York Stock Exchange, before finally realizing that the company had no intention of complying. The last straw came when VMWare demanded that that lawyers sign a nondisclosure agreement just to discuss settlement terms.

The plaintiff is German Christophe Hellwig, a key developer of the Linux kernel in this case,  The lawsuit was filed in a German court last week. The Conservancy describes Hellwig’s experience this way:

Christoph is among the most active developers of Linux. As of Feburary 19, 2015, Christoph has contributed 279,653 lines of code to the Linux kernel, and ranks twentieth among the 1,340 developers involved in the latest 3.19 kernel release. Christoph also ranks fourth among those who have reviewed third-party source code, tirelessly corrected and commented on other developers’ contributions. Christoph licenses his code to the public under the terms of the GPL for practical and ideological reasons.

VMware, a company with net revenue of over $1 billion and over 14,000 employees, ignored Christoph’s choice. They took Christoph’s code from Linux and modified it to work with their own kernel without releasing source code of the resulting complete work. This is precisely the kind of activity Christoph and other kernel developers seek to prevent by choosing the GPL. The GPL was written to prevent this specific scenario!

…..What point is there for companies to make sure that they’re compliant if there are no consequences when the GPL is violated? Many will continue to ignore the rules without enforcement. We know that there are so many companies that willingly comply and embrace GPL as part of their business. Some are temporarily out of compliance and need to be brought up to speed, but willingly comply once they realize there is an issue. Sadly, VMware sits in the rare but infamous class of perpetually non-compliant companies. VMware has been aware of their noncompliance for years but actively refuses to do the right thing. Help us do right by those who take the code in the spirit it was given and comply with copyleft, and stop those don’t.

Here is a FAQ about the lawsuit.  The court ruling promises to be a landmark not just in clarifying the scope and enforceability of the GPL, but in showing that FLOSS users have the will and capacity to defend their software commons.  So, in this spirit, consider a contribution to the legal fund for enforcing the GPL, and consider joining the Free Software Conservancy.

Why care about the GPL? Check out the recent blog post by Mike Linksvayer, former Creative Commons Chief Technology Officer, “Six reasons for GPL lovers, haters, exploiters and others to enjoy and support GPL enforcement.”

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Posted in Anti-P2P, Commons, Copyright/IP, Culture & Ideas, Original Content, P2P Legal Dev., Peer Property | No Comments »

Reductionism Undermines Both Science and Culture

photo of Øyvind Holmstad

Øyvind Holmstad
13th March 2015


By Ramray Bhat and Nikos Salingaros. Original text here.

Introduction

Reductionistic thinking, which is the philosophy of contracting complex systems in science and society to smaller or single causalities, is dangerous. With this contraction comes an indifference towards uncovering and appreciating complex explanations and the variability contributed by the context. In the sciences, reductionism leads to the unfortunate skewing of effort and funding towards what are promoted as “basic” questions, and the neglect of disciplines that are most likely to help humanity by acting on practical scales. The effects of reductionism in society are even more alarming. Reductionistic thinking leaves little room for variety, cultural traditions, living urban environments, or religion, thus reducing our worldview to a sterile minimalism bereft of several of the most glorious achievements of evolved human civilization. There is also the additional and more practical consequence: reductionism is responsible for leading us towards societal collapse.

Notwithstanding the continued imagery of the wild-haired scientist untouched by surrounding happenings and upheavals, science has intensely contributed to, and at times rewritten, social and political histories. Among the more contentious of its contributions is the philosophy of reductionism. Thus physicists in the earlier part of the last century were prone to investigating the dynamics of atoms and everything smaller than them, as if matter and all its wonderful properties could be explained only through protons and neutrons, later moving on to quarks and other such elusive elementary constituents. Similarly, much of biology in the latter half of the twentieth century was devoted to understanding and developing the tools for understanding the workings of genes, to the extent that Richard Dawkins advocated a worldview wherein it is the genes that live and evolve, using individuals and their anatomies as vehicles for perpetuation (Dawkins, 1990).

Advances in both material physics and biology have exploded these myths and shown that explanations of how inanimate and animate things work, and are made, cannot simply be broken down into their components. The very idea of any component being elementary has lost its nineteenth-century meaning, where the whole could be put together straightforwardly from elementary mechanical parts. Mechanisms are in fact intricate and layered, and interactions between components contribute as much, if not more, as the components themselves. Moreover, the environmental context also matters and is an intrinsic part of structure and function. Nevertheless, the reductive mindset refuses to go away. What’s more, like all the different ways by which science and technology have come to dominate our lives, the reductionist worldview now influences how we think about anything and everything.

The pathologies of urban dystopia

One area where reductionism’s devastating consequences are most acutely felt is urban planning. A city is a complex multilayered system, teeming with components, very much like a biological organism. Following the Second World War, architects and planners instituted a top-down approach to planning and constructing the city that reduced it to simplistic components (Salingaros, 2000). Complex urban systems were contracted and dismembered by separating distinct multiscale functions: residential, commercial, workplace, pedestrian transport, vehicular transport, green areas and parks, and manufacturing, as a result of the industrial mobilization for World-War II. All of these had earlier evolved together like the distinct and complementary functions inside an organism. Pre-war cities combined all their essential urban functions spatially in an “urban web” (Salingaros, 2005: Chapter 1). After the war, residences were separated from commercial areas and workplaces, pedestrian regions were separated from streets, and so on. This is called “monofunctional zoning”, an approach to planning widely held responsible for extinguishing vibrant urban life in our post-war cities.

The reductionist approach to urbanism decomposed all the complex components of a living city and discarded many vital ones as “inessential.” All of this was done with the approval and encouragement of “experts” who studied city functions scientifically but reached totally erroneous conclusions, while the most enlightened criticism comes from the doctor/writer Theodore Dalrymple (2009) and the philosopher Roger Scruton (2008). The pathologies of functional separation, and the concomitant emphasis on the largest scale (where highways take preference over medium-capacity and narrow streets, sidewalks, and footpaths; skyscrapers take preference over walkable four-storey compact buildings; giant centrally-planned parks take preference over older networks of small neighborhood parks) are endemic in our industrial society’s preoccupation with some imagined “efficiency of scale.” This is nothing other than a pernicious manifestation of the reductionistic fallacy.

The architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander pointed out this fallacy in understanding urban form in his classic paper “A City is Not a Tree” (Alexander, 1965). More recently, Alexander has presented an analysis of structural complexity that emphasizes cooperating hierarchical levels, and which gives proper importance to a system’s emergent properties. His latest work is not specific to architecture and city planning, and is eminently applicable to all complex systems (Alexander, 2001-2005). This work is not well known among researchers in science, economics, or the humanities. We believe that it is extremely useful because it offers an antidote to the reductionistic approach being forced onto biology and many other disciplines.

It is unfortunate that urbanists working in government planning departments re-wrote city planning regulations following the Second World War into a highly reductionistic set of rules. Governments were motivated by a misplaced belief that crude industrialization together with reductionism and collectivization had the power to solve all of humankind’s problems. Those zoning rules apply today; so that it is illegal to plan a human-scale city with mixed uses and the dynamic cross-fertilization we find in traditional cities the world over. Instead, we see applied gigantism coupled to an abject neglect of human scale, losing in effect those myriads of small-scale activities and physical spaces and structures that create and enrich human life in urban settings.

People interact with buildings, other people, built and natural forms, spaces, surfaces, urban vegetation, and ornamentation, and those interactions occur on a multitude of spatial and temporal scales. In great urban spots, persons feel more alive because they are nourished by the geometry of the environment. This sensory feeling of “life” is shared by other people experiencing the same space, hence a “living” environment leads to common bonding among those individuals who happen to share that space for a few seconds, an hour, a day, or a lifetime. But post-war urbanism denies this visceral experience, and instead imposes someone’s dead vision of an abstract impersonal world that is supposed to work mechanically (Salingaros, 2012). The New Urbanism movement in the United States aims to reverse this catastrophic trend, but it is fighting against a mechanical/industrial vision of the built environment that appeals to governments and powerful commercial interests.

So far we have criticized the effects of reductionism in urban spatial dimensions. Equally catastrophic was the postwar neglect of a city’s temporal complexity. The traditional network city defines a multiscale web of urban events and flows, but its vital complexity in the time dimension ceased to be visible to those responsible for maintaining its workings. Planners instead became obsessed with building gigantic static grids as a setting for buildings as urban sculptures. None of this had anything to do with people’s movements, interactions, or the accommodation of life’s dynamic processes. Concepts such as fractal loading (Salingaros, 2005: Chapter 7) that drove human urbanization in the first place were ignored and their importance denied, because they conflicted with a reductionistic image of a city as created from a gigantic version of children’s building blocks.

As humanity faces an ecological disaster because of uncontrolled reliance on a finite source of fossil fuels, our decision makers still ignore the obvious solutions that evolved over millennia: an organic city fabric that mixes distributed uses, scales, and flows. A dynamic “scale-free” city that works better over all spatial and temporal scales, and that emphasizes none above others, is much more resilient to the inevitable energy crash. Our traditional cities, rejected by twentieth-century planners because they are “messy” in the same ways that biological organisms are internally “messy,” provide the non-reductionistic solution to maintaining the quality of human life on earth. The solution to housing the world’s population is to channel the organic forces behind the generation of self-built settlements, and not to insist upon imposing the reductionistic solution of the same high-rises everywhere (Salingaros, 2005).

Tradition, religious belief, and sustainability are casualties of reductionism

Urban structure is not the only practice that has been compromised by reductionistic thinking. Going outside concrete and obviously practical matters altogether, we run into the old gap between science and religion. Many people influenced by reductionism are unwilling to accept a worldview where, along with science, concepts such as religion are quintessential contributors to culture and its evolution. Not surprisingly, this attitude creates resentment from the world’s population that happens to be religious. The present essay is not the place to resolve this issue; nevertheless, it is interesting that the problem we are addressing also has implications for human society and culture in a very deep sense. Reductionism runs antagonistic to historicism, the philosophy that advocates analysis of any object or construct by emphasizing its historical, geographical, and cultural setting. Reductionistic thinking biases policies determining the interrelationships of nations and peoples, towards industrially successful archetypes that remain indifferent to the observation that different communities, ethnicities, and civilizations have evolved their own tenets of justice, social interaction, and aesthetics.

Within this observed range of plurality there exists a basic commonality that respects evolved complexity, the existence and communication with different states of meaning and consciousness, and the individual creative potential of human beings. More than just leveling distinctions among cultures, therefore, reductionistic thinking erases their underling complexity and reduces people to a one-dimensional definition. And this contracted dimension is strictly a crudely mechanical one. Any additional states such as those responsible for the existence of mind and meaning, of connectivity to the multiscale phenomena in the universe and to religious dimensions, are denied.

We wish to draw attention to the fact that much of traditional art (visual art, architecture, music, dance, and literature) has been, and in non-western societies, continues to be inspired and motivated by religion. The authors as scientists (and not speaking as defenders of any particular religious point of view) acknowledge that this creativity exemplifies one of the zeniths of human achievement, through a process that has evolved for millennia since the beginnings of the human race. Furthermore, the complexity of social interactions combined with traditional heritage gives meaning and hope to the life of billions of the world’s population. All of that supposedly has no place in a reductionistic worldview that denies meaning inside a social context, and any form of higher meaning in general. Dawkins once again applied his reductionistic thinking to argue against religion (Dawkins, 2006), proposing a human existence with a vastly restricted scope. But reductionism in society severs us from a complex and nourishing tradition, the better to re-attach us to a one-dimensional framework manipulated by others.

Towards a synthetic worldview

An increasingly adopted viewpoint in science looks at matter and its influencing properties as affecting each other’s structure and function in a dynamic and reciprocal fashion; i.e., causality flows both ways. At least one of the founders of sociology, Émile Durkheim, came close to proposing a bidirectional relationship between social dynamics and religion (which was overlooked when others used his ideas for reductionistic political ends) (Durkheim, 1915). Thinking through analogy, does society create art, or does art generated by inspired individuals shape and thus create society? Here too we would argue for a bi-directional causality. Moreover, the absurdly one-dimensional art prevalent in the West over the past few decades has had devastating consequences on the complexity of a healthy society that is reduced thereby. “Health” in any system, as measured by the continued balanced working of all of its parts, cannot be maintained without a requisite complexity, as was already pointed out by Ross Ashby (Ashby, 2011).

A resilient approach to the environment, and in figuring out how to prevent human beings from destroying it, requires abandoning polarizing twentieth-century political divisions. As Roger Scruton convincingly argues (Scruton, 2012), the solution lies in local (i.e. small-scale, topical) responsibility, and away from the top-centered collectivist state, monolithic bureaucracies, or global multinational control. At the same time, society needs to stop its willful and ideologically-driven desecration of evolved traditions, because those are in many cases still the best sustainable alternatives to non-resilient twentieth-century practices. Using science to promote progress is wonderful, but it must be in an enlightened rather than reductionistic framework, otherwise the consequences could be devastating in the long term.

There is much more here that is eminently practical, for the complexity of cultural practices evolved side-by-side with our understanding of nature. Locked within cultural histories we discover sustainable practices that helped to preserve the natural environment during millennia of human habitation and use. One such example is small-scale agriculture contingent upon maintaining seed variety (Altieri, 2009; Shiva, 1988). Reductionistic thinking under the slogan “economy of scale” rejects contextual and geographical diversity and eliminates such ancient but proven practices, replacing them with an industrial agriculture dependent upon imported, non-reproducing seeds. This drastic change benefits the largest scale in a command hierarchy (i.e. the multinational corporation that produces such seeds through genetic modification, together with politicians who uncritically support the eradication of their country’s local agricultural practices) and destroys the smaller scales of the agricultural system. Its devastating consequences on society in developing countries are too well known to elaborate here (but see Bello and Baviera, 2009).

The above example is a case where a complex system: in this instance, traditional sustainable small-scale agriculture intertwining hundreds of millions of people and their culture, way of life, social meaning, and religion is contracted to a tiny elite social group (directors of a global multinational; a few politicians temporarily in power). It represents a command move hierarchically upwards, in which social complexity and environmental resilience is sacrificed to benefit one single level in the political/economic system. The hoped-for “economy of scale” is an exclusive goal of this one scale of a vast socio-cultural system, and the very process neglects all the other scales, their interdependence, and the principle that the wellbeing of the population depends upon maintaining the web of scales making up the complex system.

For those not educated in the sciences, it is very easy to be misled into believing that all of science is reductionistic. Since that would contradict what people intuitively perceive as true about the nature of the universe, the value of science itself is thereby diminished. When moreover reductionistic scientific arguments are misused to erase and negate millennial traditions, folk art, innate human creativity, human-scale architecture, material culture, informal urbanism, and sustainable ways of life, people react by being driven away from science towards irrational beliefs and superstition. At least those promise hope in contrast to the onslaught of “rational” reductionistic methods that erase crucial and timeless aspects of humanity. Which opens up societies to the opposite danger of reductionistic belief systems.

Reductionistic politico-religious movements promote the loss of healthy spiritual variety while feeding and exploiting our basest instincts. Invariably, they represent some group’s struggle for power couched in an absolutist philosophical or religious cocoon that makes the movement attractive to new followers. Reductionistic thinking has achieved the remarkable goal of repeatedly de-humanizing human beings by suppressing their complex potentials and inborn ability to distinguish ugliness from beauty, moral right from wrong, and creation from destruction. Even established religions go through an occasional period of contraction into reductionism, during which embarrassing and terrible things happen: such as the willful destruction of their own artistic and cultural heritage in an iconoclastic rage; the persecution of people holding different beliefs; or the mistreatment of fellow believers for imagined apostasies.

Starting in the early twentieth-century, sustainable practices and cultural traditions were replaced with a sleek and flashy mechanical utopia. The mass media convinced people that industrial products were preferable to living structures. And that economic and social progress demanded that the former replace the latter. This monumental deception expressed a reductionistic worldview. When the bubble of “progress through industrial production/consumption” bursts, the only solution will be to laboriously re-build the resilient multiscale complexity of our artistic, cultural, belief, and ecological systems. But, whereas reductionistic collapse is very easy to accomplish, it is extremely difficult to reconstruct complexity so that it works. That is a task akin to generating a living organism, which is a secret we are not privy to. The world has ignored and even intentionally destroyed the complexity of the natural systems upon which life depends. And the vast loss of biodiversity that this reductionistic consumer madness achieved is irreversible.

We do not entirely agree with Joseph Tainter, who attributes societal collapse to increasing complexity and the associated rising energy use due to that complexity (Alexander, 2012; Tainter, 1988). We instead prefer to interpret the historical data as a change in systemic structure that re-arranges the complexity to make the system less resilient. Societal complexity turns out to be stable and healthy for as long as it is distributed in a multiscale interactive manner. It is only when a complex system is skewed towards one dominant scale or purpose (e.g. a unidirectional power level; an energy-wasteful and usually large-scale abstract goal; mobilization for war) that it suppresses the other levels and could become pathological. Without getting into the debate over voluntary simplification of today’s society in order to prevent ecological collapse, we encourage researchers to study the system structure, and in particular the blatant instances of reductionistic practices that are indeed wasting available resources.

Conclusions

This essay touched upon many seemingly disparate topics, from the sciences, to cities, and from culture and aesthetics to religion. We suggested a unifying thread for understanding all of those phenomena as emergent manifestations of their multilayered causalities. Emergence is not a “neovitalist” notion but simply stands for properties that are products of hitherto undiscovered scales or hidden interactions between established ones. Emergent properties are what differentiate the ‘real’ from what Scruton calls the ‘fake’ or kitsch (Scruton, 2012), which are mere facades and fabrications of what is obvious and visible in real constructs. For this reason, one has to respect the overall complexity of something that has evolved over time, be it a work of art, a city, or a traditional society, and accept certain of its features that we cannot comprehend at the moment, given the limitation of the tools and methods available to us. The arrogance of some reductionistic thinkers that leads them to dismiss everything they cannot explain using a mechanistic approach is not only wrong, but also dangerous. Hopefully, a more enlightened mindset, one that takes a positive historicist and interdisciplinary approach, can now help to validate complexity wherever it is found. We can study complex systems for the lessons they provide us, and not damage them as a previous generation of “experts” did by applying reductionistic thinking.

In conclusion, our discussion is not just about aesthetics, but touches upon the very survival of humanity and the ecosystems that support life on earth. We feel sufficiently alarmed by the present approach, which rests upon exclusively reductionistic advice given by experts to both governments and the private sector. We are not optimistic that modern societies can avoid catastrophic systemic collapse by continuing to trust those same experts, all of whom are firmly rooted in a reductionistic, mechanical view of the universe. Major decisions that affect the future of humanity and civilization: what types of science to fund, the shape of our buildings and cities, providing a fertile educational and media environment that nourishes a symbiosis between tradition and the culture of life, require a new kind of input. Realizing the near-impossibility of diverting a comfortable way of doing things that has so far produced great material wealth, it is nevertheless imperative to turn to anti-reductionistic thinking so as to recover sustainable aspects of humanity lost in the past century.

 

Acknowledgment: We are indebted to Alexandros A. Lavdas for criticism and useful suggestions.

Ramray Bhat (rbhat@lbl.gov) is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California and Nikos Salingaros (salingar@gmail.com) is a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas and a prominent urbanist and architectural theorist.

REFERENCES:

Alexander, C. (1965) “A City is Not a Tree”, Architectural Forum, Volume 122, No. 1 pages 58-61, and Volume 122, No. 2, pages 58-62. Reprinted in: J. Thackara (Editor), Design After Modernism (Thames and Hudson, London, 1988), pages 67-84. http://www.rudi.net/books/200

Alexander, C. (2001-2005) The Nature of Order, 4 Volumes (Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California).

Alexander, S. (2012) “Resilience Through Simplification: Revisiting Tainter’s Theory of Collapse”, Simplicity Institute Report 12h. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2095648

Altieri, M. A. (2009) Small farms as a planetary ecological asset: Five key reasons why we should support the revitalization of small farms in the Global South (Third World Network, Penang, Malaysia).

Ashby, H. R. (2011) “Variety, Constraint, and the Law of Requisite Variety”, E:CO Issues, Vol. 13, Nos. 1-2, pages 190-207. Original paper published in 1968.

Bello, W. and Baviera, M. (2009) “Food Wars”, Monthly Review, Volume 61, pages 17-31.

Dalrymple, T. (2009) “The Architect as Totalitarian”, City Journal, Volume 19, No. 4, Autumn 2009, pages 116-124. http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_4_otbie-le-corbusier.html

Dawkins, R. (1990) The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, New York).

Dawkins, R. (2006) The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, New York).

Durkheim, E. (1915) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, translated by Carol Cosman (Oxford University Press, New York, 2008).

Salingaros, N. A. (2000) “The Structure of Pattern Languages”, Architectural Research Quarterly, Volume 4, pages 149-161. Reprinted as Chapter 8 of Principles of Urban Structure (Techne Press, Amsterdam, Holland, 2005). http://www.math.utsa.edu/ftp/salingar.old/StructurePattern.html

Salingaros, N. A. (2005) Principles of Urban Structure (Techne Press, Amsterdam, Holland).

Salingaros, N. A. (2012) “Beauty, Life, and the Geometry of the Environment”, Chapter 2 of: Agnes Horvath & James B. Cuffe (Editors), Reclaiming Beauty, Volume I (Ficino Press, Cork, Ireland), pages 63-103. Edited version of an essay from the Athens Dialogues E-Journal, Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies, October 2010. http://www.math.utsa.edu/~yxk833/lifeandthegeometry.pdf

Scruton, R. (2008) “Between Art and Science”, The New Criterion, Volume 26, No. 6, pages 4-10. Abstract at http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/between-art-science-3753

Scruton, R. (2012) How to Think Seriously About the Planet (Oxford University Press, New York). European title: Green Philosophy.

Shiva, V. (1988) Staying Alive. Women, Ecology and Development (South End Press, Brooklyn, New York).

Tainter, J. (1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge).

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Glimmers of hope for a ‘fair shares society’

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
1st March 2015


fair share - pay yours

As part of STWR’sglobal call for sharingcampaign, we are periodically highlighting the growing public debate on the need for wealth, power and resources to be shared more equitably both within countries and internationally. This debate is becoming more prominent by the day, although it is often framed in an implicit context without directly acknowledging how the principle of sharing is central to resolving today’s interlocking crises.

In this light, the editorial below illustrates some of the many and diverse ways in which a call for sharing is being expressed, whether it’s by politicians, economists, campaigners, activists, academics or anyone else. To learn more about STWR’s campaign, please visit: www.sharing.org/global-call


Last month the reality of extreme global inequality was again a presiding theme of high-level discussion, not least at Davos where the world’s richest and most powerful get together “to convince themselves they are the good guys”. Remarkably, the World Economic Forum founder urged delegates that the motto for their 2015 meeting should be ‘sharing and caring’. But as STWR pointed out in a blog post, the solutions to global inequality are unlikely to come from the business elites that are in large measure responsible for creating it. Oxfam’s latest research on the growing wealth gap made global news headlines once again, based on a briefing paper that argued how the billions spent on corporate lobbying is increasingly moving society away from the direction of economic sharing and redistribution on behalf of the common good.

So from the very start of the year, the need to tackle inequality through policies that can share wealth more equitably is central to even mainstream debate – and will inevitably remain so in the midst of ongoing austerity measures, wage cuts and high unemployment in many high-income as well as low-income countries.

It is interesting to observe how the focus on inequality is shaping political attitudes in rich nations like the United States, especially following Obama’s State of the Union address that emphasised social mobility and the need to ‘spread the wealth’ more evenly. His proposed tax redistribution measures – dubbed the ‘Robin Hood plan’ and widely considered a “pipe dream” by Republicans – were at least centered on the need to bolster social programs that benefit lower- and middle-income Americans, paid for with tax increases on the wealthiest taxpayers, corporations and financial firms. As a hopeful sign of the times, Obama is apparently trying to reframe the debate over what government can do to limit inequality – focusing on real solutions rather than sterile arguments about economic growth versus equity.

As the UK gears up for its general election in May, bellicose discussions about equality, fairness, taxation and redistribution are also front and centre of political debate. A coalition of NGOs recently launched a campaign for a new law called the Tax Dodging Bill [see STWR blog], premised on the need for a just tax system that shares its wealth and resources fairly among the population. Campaigners highlight the need for big corporations to pay their ‘fair share’ of taxes, both at home and abroad, and call for the next UK government to take definitive steps to crack down on tax dodging within the first hundred days of taking office.

Almost every British politician is now compelled to acknowledge the need for tax justice in one way or another, especially in light of the firestorm over HSBC’s complicity with international tax evasion. Indeed, one member of parliament has even called for a “fair shares society” in which businesses “share the wealth they minted”. Wading into the debate earlier last month, the Church of England has also spoken out in trenchant terms about the extreme inequality that defines modern Britain, arguing that moral principles and sharing should underpin the foundations of society [see STWR blog].

Occupy Democracy are also stepping up their activities at Parliament Square outside Westminster prior to the election, with a provisional set of demands that broadly encapsulate the need for a more equitable sharing of wealth, political power and resources across society as a whole – such as by closing down tax havens, reversing the privatisation of public services, abolishing university tuition fees, and instituting a universal basic income. The latter policy proposal has reinvigorated popular discourse in the UK over how society’s resources should be shared for the benefit of everyone, mainly in light of the resurgent Green Party’s plans to implement the measure for every adult in or out of work. Although many notable progressive analysts disagree with the proposal as a way to share work and incomes, some – like Paul Mason – argue that its logic could pose “a radical challenge to market economics” and help forge “a pathway to a different kind of economy”.

At the European level, much has happened since Syriza’s rise to power to ignite debate over what it means to live in a sharing society. As Paul Mason again writes in an incisive blog about Europe’s new populist left movement: “…if you think about it, all Podemos and Syriza are really trying to do is bring the Scandinavian model to the Aegean and the Med. …But here’s the problem: in a neoliberal world, even the basic welfare state can look revolutionary. Most projections for the survival of free-market capitalism involve the creation of greater inequality, a smaller state sector and a lower-paid workforce.”

It’s unclear as yet whether Syriza’s victory will spell the coming of a European Democratic Spring or the end of austerity, but there’s no doubt that progressive policies that reflect the principle of sharing are at least being seriously considered and discussed. There’s even the odd glimmer of hope that some policies are headed the right way, as with calls for cancelling Greece’s debt or Croatia’s plans to write-off the debts of 60,000 poor citizens. Plans for taxing the financial sector to generate public money for European countries – an EU-wide Robin Hood Tax – are also “still kicking”, according to The Economist.

Of course, government priorities and policies are generally headed far from the trajectory of global systemic change and economic sharing, as summed up in the concept of the ‘market-state’ which is outlined in a recent article by STWR’s Rajesh Makwana. Now more than ever, it is essential that ordinary citizens join hands with campaign groups and activists who are working to democratise our governance systems from the top down as well as the bottom up. And there is every indication that this is happening more and more, not least with the recent civil society mobilisation in Brussels against TTIP – the so-called ‘Trojan treaty’ that threatens democracy and puts corporate profits before people’s needs.

The above is just a snapshot of recent signs and trends that illustrate how the principle of sharing is increasingly being viewed as a solution to unjust power dynamics or inequitable wealth distribution. Much more could be mentioned, especially in terms of the environmental movement, new economy initiatives and the renewed concept of the commons – much more of which we will aim to highlight in future editorials. See in particular a recent interview by the P2P Foundation, which outlines STWR’s basic perspective about the ethic and practice of sharing in relation to commoning and peer-to-peer production.

For regular sharing-related links of the above nature you can visit STWR’s twitter andfacebook pages, as well as a new scoop.it! page on ‘what we’re reading’. And if you see that we’ve missed anything pertinent (due to our limited time to monitor the news media and progressive websites), please drop us a line at info@stwr.org. You can also sign up to our newsletter on the homepage if you’d like to receive regular updates in your email inbox about what we’re doing at STWR.

Photo credit: Chicago Man, flickr creative commons

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Why the Tech Elite Is Getting Behind Universal Basic Income

photo of Nathan Schneider

Nathan Schneider
24th February 2015


raining-gold

As if Silicon Valley hasn’t given us enough already, it may have to start giving us all money. The first indication I got of this came one evening last summer, when I sat in on a meet-up of virtual-currency enthusiasts at a hackerspace a few miles from the Googleplex, in Mountain View, California. After one speaker enumerated the security problems of a promising successor to Bitcoin, the economics blogger Steve Randy Waldman got up to speak about “engineering economic security.” Somewhere in his prefatory remarks he noted that he is an advocate of universal basic income—the idea that everyone should get a regular and substantial paycheck, no matter what. The currency hackers arrayed before him glanced up from their laptops at the thought of it, and afterward they didn’t look back down. Though Waldman’s talk was on an entirely different subject, basic income kept coming up during a Q&A period—the difficulties of implementing it and whether anyone would work ever again.

Around that time I had been hearing calls for basic income from more predictable sources on the East Coast—followers of the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber and the editors of the socialist magazine Jacobin, among others. The idea certainly has a leftist ring to it: an expansion of the social-welfare system to cover everyone. A hard-cash thank-you just for being alive. A way to quit the job you despise and—to take the haters’ favorite example—surf.

Basic income, it turns out, is in the peculiar class of political notions that can warm Leninist and libertarian hearts alike. Though it’s an essentially low-tech proposal, it appeals to Silicon Valley’s longing for simple, elegant algorithms to solve everything. Supporters list the possible results: It can end poverty and inequality with hardly any bureaucracy. With more money and less work to do, we might even spew less climate-disrupting carbon.

The idea of basic income has been appearing among the tech-bro elite a lot lately. Mega-investor and Netscape creator Marc Andreessen recently told New York magazine that he considers it “a very interesting idea,” and Sam Altman of the boutique incubator Y Combinator calls its implementation an “obvious conclusion.” Albert Wenger, a New York–based venture capitalist at Union Square Ventures, has been blogging about basic income since 2013. He’s worried about the clever apps his company is funding, which do things like teach languages and hail cars, displacing jobs with every download.

“We are at the beginning of the time where machines will do a lot of the things humans have traditionally done,” Wenger told me in October. “How do you avoid a massive bifurcation of society into those who have wealth and those who don’t?” He has proposed holding a basic-income experiment in the dystopian fantasyland of Detroit.

Singularity University is a kind of seminary in Silicon Valley where the metaphysical conviction that machines are, or soon will be, essentially superior to human beings is nourished among those involved in profiting from that eventuality. Last June, the institution’s co-founder and chairman, Peter Diamandis, a space-tourism executive, convened a gathering of fellow industry luminaries to discuss the conundrum of technology-driven unemployment.

“Tell me something that you think robots cannot do, and I will tell you a time frame in which they can actually do it,” a young Italian entrepreneur named Federico Pistono challenged me. Among other accomplishments, Pistono has written a book called Robots Will Steal Your Job, but That’s OK. At the Singularity meeting he was the chief proponent of basic income. He cited recent experiments in India that showed promise for combating poverty among people the tech economy has left behind. Diamandis later reported having been “amazed” by the potential.

One might not expect such enthusiasm for no-strings-attached money in a room full of libertarian-leaning investors. But for entrepreneurial sorts like these, welfare doesn’t necessarily require a welfare state. One of the attendees at the Singularity meeting was HowStuffWorks.com founder Marshall Brain, who had outlined his vision for basic income in a novella published on his website called Manna. The book tells the story of a man who loses his fast-food job to software, only to find salvation in a basic-income utopia carved out of the Australian Outback by a visionary startup CEO. There, basic income means people have the free time to tinker with the kinds of projects that might be worthy of venture capital, creating the society of rogue entrepreneurs that tech culture has in mind. Waldman refers to basic income as “VC for the people.”

Chris Hawkins, a 30-year-old investor who made his money building software that automates office work, credits Manna as an influence. On his company’s website he has taken to blogging about basic income, which he looks to as a bureaucracy killer. “Shut down government programs as you fund redistribution,” he told me. Mothball public housing, food assistance, Medicaid, and the rest, and replace them with a single check. It turns out that the tech investors promoting basic income, by and large, aren’t proposing to fund the payouts themselves; they’d prefer that the needy foot the bill for everyone else.

“The cost has to come from somewhere,” Hawkins explained, “and I think the most logical place to take it from is government-provided services.”

This kind of reasoning has started to find a constituency in Washington. The Cato Institute, Charles Koch’s think tank for corporate-friendly libertarianism, published a series of essays last August debating the pros and cons of basic income. That same week, an article appeared in the Atlantic making a “conservative case for a guaranteed basic income.” It suggested that basic income is actually a logical extension of Paul Ryan’s scheme to replace federal welfare programs with cash grants to states—the Republican Party’s latest bid to crown itself “the party of ideas.” Basic income is still not quite yet speakable in the halls of power, but Republicans may be bringing it closer than they realize.

Karl Widerquist, a professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, has been preaching basic income since he was in high school in the early 1980s. He says that we are now in the third wave of American basic-income activism. The first was during the economic crises between the world wars. The second was in the 1960s and 70s, when libertarian heroes like Milton Friedman were advocating for a negative income tax and when ensuring a minimum income for the poor was just about the only thing Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon could agree about. (Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, which bears some resemblance to basic income, passed the House but died in the Senate.) The present wave seems to have picked up in late 2013, as the news went viral about a mounting campaign in Switzerland to put basic income to a vote. Widerquist is glad to see the renewed interest, but he’s cautious about what the libertarians and techies have in mind.

“I don’t think we want to wait for technological unemployment before having basic income,” he says. For him the plan is not about averting the next disaster—it’s about curbing the exploitation of the property system.

Riding way on the left side of the current wave of enthusiasm is Kathi Weeks. She’s a good old-fashioned-in-certain-ways feminist Marxist who made basic income a central proposal in her recent book The Problem with Work. She advocates it cautiously, however: If a basic income were too low, people wouldn’t be able to quit their jobs, but employers would still lower their wages. It could incline more businesses to act like Walmart, letting their workers scrape by on government programs while they pay a pittance. Workers might get money for nothing, but they’d also find themselves with dwindling leverage in their workplaces.

If we were to fund basic income only by gutting existing welfare, and not by taxing the rich, it would do the opposite of fixing inequality; money once reserved for the poor would end up going to those who need it less. Instead of being a formidable bulwark against poverty, a poorly funded basic-income program could produce a vast underclass more dependent on whoever cuts the checks. And as out-there as the idea can seem, Weeks’s leftist critics complain that it’s still a tweak, a reform. “It’s not going to signal the end of capitalism,” she recognizes.

Like pretty much all the shortcut solutions Silicon Valley offers, basic income would have its perks, but it isn’t enough to solve our real problems on its own. There’s still no substitute for organizing more power in more communities—the power to shape society, not just to fiddle with someone else’s app. Social Security, for instance, came to be thanks to the popular struggles of the 1930s, and it carried huge swaths of old people out of poverty. Obamacare, a set of reforms mostly written by the industry it was meant to regulate, has turned out to be a far more mixed bag.

A basic income designed by venture capitalists in Silicon Valley is more likely to reinforce their power than to strengthen the poor. But a basic income arrived at through the vision and the struggle of those who need it most would help ensure that it meets their needs first. If we’re looking for a way through the robot apocalypse, we can do better than turn to the people who are causing it.

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A world of ‘sharing and caring’ won’t begin in Davos

photo of Adam Parsons

Adam Parsons
13th February 2015


Davos

At this year’s gathering of the world’s richest and most powerful at Davos, the World Economic Forum founder has urged delegates that the motto for their 2015 meeting should besharing and caring’.


Inequality is again on the agenda (if not considered the top threat to world stability, as last year), which has prompted many critics to point out – as usual – that the solutions to inequality are unlikely to come from the global elites that are largely responsible for creating it.

Despite all the media debates and high-profile discussions there is mainly talk and no action when it comes to creating a more equal society. And the only kind of sharing that is championed by the corporate executives and world leaders at Davos is within the context of charity and big business, rather than discussing any real solutions that would require government interventions and wealth redistribution.

A new report and series of interactive infographics from Global Justice Now, formerly the World Development Movement, exposes the core myths that define the worldview of this tiny group of elites. In a refreshingly straightforward and incisive way, it demonstrates the fallacies behind their ideology that is now deeply ingrained in society and a serious obstacle to building a fairer, more sustainable world for the majority.

For example, it is not true that the ‘poor are getting richer’ in the face of soaring inequality, which is starkly illustrated in sub-Saharan Africa where there has been almost no improvement in poverty rates since 1981 (indeed, the number of people living on less than $2 has doubled over this period). As often repeated, the vast majority of the fall in global poverty since the 1990s is the result of China’s effectiveness at tackling poverty, which it famously achieved without following the prescriptions of the so-called Washington Consensus.

The reality is that while the rich have certainly got richer as a result of economic globalisation, most of the poor have remained in poverty. Believing otherwise is to conveniently overlook the devastating impacts of free market, neoliberal economic policies in many developing countries, as well as the inequalities of power that keeps poor people poor. But this is, of course, unlikely to be the chief concern at Davos where discussions revolve around a common theme: that their business practices, overseas investments, entrepreneurial talent and philanthropy are the only answer to world problems.

Another myth is that economic growth is the panacea for social ills and poverty, despite all evidence to the contrary. As the Global Justice Now report argues, growth – while important – is never enough, unless a nation’s economy is geared to sharing the benefits of growth fairly. As long as the benefits are increasingly captured by a small global elite, it is inevitable that the lives of those at the bottom of society will continue to get worse. A neat graphic illustrates a stark fact from the New Economics Foundation’s report Growth isn’t working, asking the reader to guess how much of each $100 of global economic growth has actually contributed to reducing poverty – which is an astonishing $0.60. (Equally shockingly, 95% of the proceeds of growth in the US went to the top 1% during the three years of economic recovery that followed the 2008 financial crash.)

Several of the report’s myths also simply describe how the global economic system is fundamentally skewed in favour of rich countries, which is the real reason why billions of people in poorer countries are lacking the essentials for life, such as adequate food, water and energy. So the image of Africa as poor and helpless is wrong, because the continent is one of the richest in terms of natural resources – and far more money is extracted from the region (such as through profit repatriation, debt repayments and tax evasion) than is given in aid.

The report also argues that international aid could make the world a fairer place, but only if it undergoes major reform so that it is genuinely redistributive and no longer a tool of free market policy. At present, aid is increasingly being used to support multinational corporations in their quest for profits, such as by forcing poor countries to privatise their public services. But this does not mean that overseas development assistance should be entirely scrapped as a system, as “redistributing wealth from the richest to the poorest is a necessary element of creating a fairer world – as it is in creating a fairer society.”

More ambitiously, the report suggests, we should see aid more as a system of global taxation in which it is used to help build what we might call ‘sharing societies’ in all countries. It concludes: “The funds would have to be much bigger than they currently are to create such a change, and the mentality would have to change completely. Creating a better world is not generous, especially if you have created the unfairness in the first place. What’s more aid can never be seen in isolation. Fairer trade, cancelling unjust debt, stopping climate change, tackling tax havens and securing democratic freedoms are all more important in achieving global justice.”

Such common sense is sadly not the preserve of orthodox thinking among the majority of attendees at the luxurious ski resort of Davos, where there is no hint of the poverty and hardship suffered by billions of people elsewhere in the world. As ever, it is up to campaigners and concerned citizens to challenge the myopic outlook of those elites who are concerned about growing inequality, but unwilling to embrace the necessary measures to reverse it.

Photo credit: World Economic Forum, flickr creative commons

 

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Oxfam’s latest bombshell on how unequally the world’s wealth is shared

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
10th February 2015


davos-oxfams-shareable-graphic2-island

Twitter feeds and newspaper headlines were again dominated this morning by new statistics on growing wealth inequality, as released by Oxfam ahead of this week’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

It is now customary for Oxfam to publish new research on how severe the gap between the 1% and the 99% is growing, prior to the gathering of billionaires and politicians at the Swiss ski resort of Davos. The latest research has heralded another media coup for the anti-poverty charity, demonstrating how extreme is the lack of sharing in our societies when just 80 rich people have the same wealth as the bottom half of the planet.

This is in contrast to the 85 billionaires that held the same amount of wealth last year, according to wealth data drawn from Credit Suisse that also grabbed news headlines in January 2014. (Interestingly, Forbes magazine – who publish the annual billionaires list – later contended that it was actually 67 people who own as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion).

Oxfam estimate that in 2014, the richest 1% of people in the world owned 48% of global wealth, leaving just 52% to be shared between the other 99% of adults on the planet. However, almost all of that 52% is owned by those in the richest 20% of the global population, leaving just 5.5% for the poorer 80% of people. If current trends continue of an increasing wealth share to the richest, the top 1% will have more wealth than the remaining 99% of people by 2017.

Oxfam’s short research brief, Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More, illustrates this staggering inequality with a series of graphs that show how the wealth share of the top 1% has continued to increase since 2010, while the bottom 99% have experienced a decline in their share of total global wealth that is set to fall significantly further over the next 5 years. The wealth of the very richest continues to expand at an inconceivable rate, typically increasing by over a billion dollars per individual between March 2013 and March 2014 – or $4 billion in the case of the Italian pharmaceuticals magnate, Stefano Pessina.

In the words of the paper’s author, senior researcher Deborah Hardoon: “The extreme wealth at the top of the distribution… is not only mind-blowing, but quite obscene when compared with how wealth is distributed to the rest of us in the world.” The main reason for this upward redistribution, according to the brief, is the entrenched cycle of wealth, power and influence that enables the super-rich to create an environment that protects and enhances their interests, particularly through government lobbying activities and campaign contributions.

The most prolific lobbying activities in the US are on budget and tax issues, which Oxfam states can directly undermine public interests where a reduction in the tax burden to companies results in less money for delivering essential public services. In other words, the billions that are spent on lobbying is increasingly moving society away from the direction of economic sharing and redistribution on behalf of the common good, a pernicious trend that is set to accelerate without a dramatic change in government policy and business practices.

The reality of extreme global inequality and the case against it has now been well made in any number of books, reports and conferences, from Thomas Piketty’s tome of analysis to the annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank last year, where the chosen theme was ‘shared prosperity’. But the need for real action from policymakers to share wealth and resources more equitably is ever urgent, especially in the midst of ongoing austerity measures, wage cuts and high unemployment in many high-income as well as low-income countries.

As STWR has often remarked, this will inevitably require government intervention, regulations and laws that guarantee fairness and equity in society, however anathema this may remain to the neoliberal rulebook still held by most of today’s politicians. Although the richest 1% had an average wealth of $2.7 million per adult in 2014, we cannot expect the members of this global elite to voluntarily share their wealth as a response to world poverty, one that is based on charity instead of justice and structural reform. Indeed as Oxfam acknowledge through their many sensible recommendations, the policy solutions for reducing inequality are plentiful and widely known. So if 2014 was the year when the need to tackle inequality went mainstream, perhaps 2015 will be the year when a call for economic justice and sharing becomes the presiding theme of political conversation.

 

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As Neoliberal Forces Lash Out, Solidarity with Syriza is Needed

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
6th February 2015


Syrizavictory

Now that Syriza has prevailed in the Greek elections, a new field of battle has emerged:  the political maneuvering before debt-relief negotiations.  Syriza’s decisive victory is sending some richly deserved shock waves through the citadels of finance capital and their partners in government, especially in Europe.

Not since the 2008 financial crisis have neoliberal policies and politicians suffered such a stinging public rebuke – through democratic elections, no less.  The financial establishment and leading politicians around the world want nothing more than to staunch the damage. They clearly wish to isolate the new prime minister and undermine his party’s leadership.  They would also love to kill in the cradle many socially minded initiatives that Syriza plans (protections against home foreclosures, restoration of pensions, basic healthcare, etc.).

Hence the fierce media propaganda war now underway to defame Syriza and lock in a negative set of images and ideas about it. I keep hearing the term “radical left” a lot (funny, the press never called austerity politics a program of the “radical right”).  British Prime Minister David Cameron recently warned, “The Greek election will increase economic uncertainty across Europe” – as if that hasn’t been the case for years.

There are also many attacks on the coalition government as unprincipled and expedient, particularly after Syriza made a coalition government with ANEL (a conservative party whose acronym translates as “independent Greeks”).  ANEL is socially conservative but it is also extremely hostile to big capital and the current banking system.  It is more radical than Syriza in that it wants to nationalize banks and throw out the Greek oligarchy.

I thought it was telling, in its account of the elections, that the New York Times gave the last word to the neoliberal Peterson Institute for International Economics.  A fellow there counseled Greece to move to the political center because “it would show that these protest movements ultimately recognize reality – which is that they are in the euro, and they have to play by the rules.”  Otherwise, he warned, “things could get a lot worse.  Very, very quickly.”

“Play by the rules,” “face reality” – or things will get “a lot worse.” Worse than the slow-motion social disintegration that austerity is already imposing on the Greeks?  Such advice is darkly humorous in light of the rule-breaking, reality-defying audacity of banks, financial institutions and investors.

Still, such fear campaigns have to be taken seriously.  We remember what happened when the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvatore Allende, did not conform to the expectations of international capital in 1973. This is serious stuff. Nowadays governments have learned to handle such perils in a more decorous fashion – through draconian, secretly negotiated international treaties, non-democratic central bank actions and sweetheart legislation enacted by compliant or corrupt members of parliament.  Much cleaner politically.

The lesson today is the same one that the 2008 meltdown taught:  in the end, citizens and democracy are the junior partners in this enterprise known as “democratic capitalism.”  Investors and creditors have their privileges, their trump cards and reliable political proxies.  That’s what is being mobilized now against the Greeks.

We saw this sort of mobilization of political clout a few days ago before the Greek election. The European Central Bank used “quantitative easing” lending in an attempt to sway Greek voters, according to Corporate Europe Observatory:

“The EU bureaucratic elite is very much part of the game in Greece. Already at the first hint of an upcoming general election, the EU Commission President Juncker lashed out at Syriza, saying he thought ‘the Greeks ­– who have a very difficult life – know very well what a wrong election result would mean for Greece and the eurozone,’ warning against “extreme forces.”  And the power of the ECB has been unashamedly applied in a way that doesn’t quite square with its mandate. A case in point is its quantitative easing, the massive injection of capital to the tune of 1.1 trillion euro decided yesterday [January 22] by the ECB, in that its timing and design could be seen as in part an attempt to influence the outcome of the Greek elections.”

The website went to note that Syriza wants to cancel at least half of the Greek debt, especially debt to the Eurozone and the ECB:  “These are promises that are hard to go back on… as they strike to the core of the humanitarian crisis in Greece. This crisis moreover, will not be relieved in the slightest by the new program of quantitative easing, but only via some sort of rollback or outright deletion of the Troika austerity programs.  Clearly the ECB has chosen its design and timing for its quantitative easing program in a manner that is intended to be helpful to the party currently in power in Greece, the conservative New Democracy, as it fights an election this weekend.”

So if the pre-election manipulations were bad, the coming collision between European creditors and the Syriza government will likely be even more intense. The Greek government has some serious chips of its own to play, however, most notably its commanding election victory and the legitimacy that it confers.  Greece could conceivably leave or threaten to leave the Eurozone, too, a move that would be very bad news for investors. In a bit of bravado, Syriza has even called attention to the fact that Germany has never repaid the money that it “borrowed” from Greece during the Nazi occupation during WWII.

Needless to say, the guardians of the “Washington consensus” are not eager for Greece to prevail and set a “bad example” that others might emulate. A successful Syriza might inspire oppressed taxpayers and jobless citizens in Spain, Italy, Ireland, the US and elsewhere to fight the crushing anti-social costs and unfairness of austerity politics. Occupy could happen again, but with a new determination not to be fooled again.

It is hard for most of us to imagine the hardships that the Greeks have endured – the massive unemployment, extensive privatization of public assets, loss of public services, corrupt policymaking and dire everyday need. Over 400 new laws were rushed through the Greek parliament over the past four years, including many drawn up by the Troika — the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.  It has now become virtually illegal for public sector workers to go on strike because it would threaten growth and risk state mobilization of citizens. Such a threat was made against teachers who threatened to go on strike.

So the attacks on Syriza are really about much more than Syriza – they are about preserving the international policies and neoliberal political system for the benefit of investors and lenders. They are about nipping in the bud any sustained or contagious populist insurgencies.

That’s why it is critical, in the coming media wars, that there be strong international solidarity with Syriza and the difficult challenges that it faces in inventing a new, more socially constructive successor to neoliberalism. Governments in the US, UK, Germany and elsewhere need to realize that their hardball tactics toward Greece will have domestic political costs — because, after all, Greece was simply in the vanguard of what the rest of us could well face.

Greek commentator Akis Gavriilidis writes that the real reason that Syriza is so feared and reviled by international capital and neoliberal governments is that the party is engineering an “epistemological break” with the history of the Greek Left:

“It breaks a long tradition – perhaps the only tradition – of the Greek left: the conception of separateness, the concept of the ‘fortress party,’ as the only possible form of leftist politics. Up to now, this politics had almost exclusively organized itself on the founding principles of unity and purity, and considered ‘pluralism’ as an insidious weapon used by bourgeois ideology in order to undermine and bring discord in our ‘camp.’  Now it is the first time when somebody tries to abandon uniqueness (or duality, which is practically its synonym) and work with multiplicity as a means to increase their strength and bring about a transformative and emancipatory effect.

Gavriililis suggests that the Greek left may be following “the essential lesson of Asian martial arts: the good strategist is not the one who crushes the enemy’s forces, but the one who uses them in his/her own favor.”

 

Updates:  Here is a well-produced independent video documentary, directed by Theopi Skarlatos, about the last 23 days of the Greece election campaign, with an emphasis on Syriza.

For English-language news about the Greek situation for global readers, check out the Press Project.

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John Michael Greer on intermediation and the end of the market economy

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
16th December 2014


France, Château de Beynac Window

Extracted from his blog, John Michael Greer talks about the historical role of intermediation in both thriving and declining economies. This extract forms part of larger series of posts entitled “Dark Age America”


One of the factors that makes it difficult to think through the economic consequences of the end of the industrial age is that we’ve all grown up in a world where every form of economic activity has been channeled through certain familiar forms for so long that very few people remember that things could be any other way. Another of the factors that make the same effort of thinking difficult is that the conventional economic thought of our time has invested immense effort and oceans of verbiage into obscuring the fact that things could be any other way.

Those are formidable obstacles. We’re going to have to confront them, though, because one of the core features of the decline and fall of civilizations is that most of the habits of everyday life that are standard practice when civilizations are at zenith get chucked promptly into the recycle bin as decline picks up speed. That’s true across the whole spectrum of cultural phenomena, and it’s especially true of economics, for a reason discussed in last week’s post: the economic institutions and habits of a civilization in full flower are too complex for the same civilization to support once it’s gone to seed.

The institutions and habits that contemporary industrial civilization uses to structure its economic life comprise that tangled realm of supposedly voluntary exchanges we call “the market.” Back when the United States was still contending with the Soviet Union for global hegemony, that almost always got rephrased as “the free market;” the adjective still gets some use among ideologues, but by and large it’s dropped out of use elsewhere. This is a good thing, at least from the perspective of honest speaking, because the “free” market is of course nothing of the kind. It’s unfree in at least two crucial senses: first, in that it’s compulsory; second, in that it’s expensive.

“The law in its majestic equality,” Anatole France once noted drolly, “forbids rich and poor alike to urinate in public, sleep under bridges, or beg for bread.” In much the same sense, no one is actually forced to participate in the market economy in the modern industrial world. Those who want to abstain are perfectly free to go looking for some other way to keep themselves fed, clothed, housed, and supplied with the other necessities of life, and the fact that every option outside of the market has been hedged around with impenetrable legal prohibitions if it hasn’t simply been annihilated by legal fiat or brute force is just one of those minor details that make life so interesting.

Historically speaking, there are a vast number of ways to handle exchanges of goods and services between people. In modern industrial societies, on the other hand, outside of the occasional vestige of an older tradition here and there, there’s only one. Exchanging some form of labor for money, on whatever terms an employer chooses to offer, and then exchanging money for goods and services, on whatever terms the seller chooses to offer, is the only game in town. There’s nothing free about either exchange, other than the aforesaid freedom to starve in the gutter. The further up you go in the social hierarchy, to be sure, the less burdensome the conditions on the exchanges generally turn out to be—here as elsewhere, privilege has its advantages—but unless you happen to have inherited wealth or can find some other way to parasitize the market economy without having to sell your own labor, you’re going to participate if you like to eat.

Your participation in the market, furthermore, doesn’t come cheap. Every exchange you make, whether it’s selling your labor or buying goods and services with the proceeds, takes place within a system that has been subjected to the process of intermediation discussed in last week’s post. Thus, in most cases, you can’t simply sell your labor directly to individuals who want to buy it or its products; instead, you are expected to sell your labor to an employer, who then sells it or its product to others, gives you part of the proceeds, and pockets the rest. Plenty of other people are lined up for their share of the value of your labor: bankers, landlords, government officials, and the list goes on. When you go to exchange money for goods and services, the same principle applies; how much of the value of your labor you get to keep for your own purposes varies from case to case, but it’s always less than the whole sum, and sometimes a great deal less.

Karl Marx performed a valuable service to political economy by pointing out these facts and giving them the stress they deserve, in the teeth of savage opposition from the cheerleaders of the status quo who, then as now, dominated economic thought. His proposed solution to the pervasive problems of the (un)free market was another matter. Like most of his generation of European intellectuals, Marx was dazzled by the swamp-gas luminescence of Hegelian philosophy, and followed Hegel’s verbose and vaporous trail into a morass of circular reasoning and false prophecy from which few of his remaining followers have yet managed to extract themselves.

It’s from Hegel that Marx got the enticing but mistaken notion that history consists of a sequence of stages that move in a predetermined direction toward some as-perfect-as-possible state: the same idea, please note, that Francis Fukuyama used to justify his risible vision of the first Bush administration as the glorious fulfillment of human history. (To borrow a bit of old-fashioned European political jargon, there are right-Hegelians and left-Hegelians; Fukuyama was an example of the former, Marx of the latter.) I’ll leave such claims and the theories founded on them to the true believers, alongside such equally plausible claims as the Singularity, the Rapture, and the lemonade oceans of Charles Fourier; what history itself shows is something rather different.

What history shows, as already noted, is that the complex systems that emerge during the heyday of a civilization are inevitably scrapped on the way back down. Market economies are among those complex systems. Not all civilizations have market economies—some develop other ways to handle the complicated process of allocating goods and services in a society with many different social classes and occupational specialties—but those that do set up market economies inevitably load them with as many intermediaries as the overall complexity of their economies can support.

It’s when decline sets in and maintaining the existing level of complexity becomes a problem that the trouble begins. Under some conditions, intermediation can benefit the productive economy, but in a complex economy, more and more of the intermediation over time amounts to finding ways to game the system, profiting off economic activity without actually providing any benefit to anyone else.  A complex society at or after its zenith thus typically ends up with a huge burden of unproductive economic activity supported by an increasingly fragile foundation of productive activity.

All the intermediaries, the parasitic as well as the productive, expect to be maintained in the style to which they’re accustomed, and since they typically have more wealth and influence than the producers and consumers who support them, they can usually stop moves to block their access to the feed trough. Economic contraction, however, makes it hard to support business as usual on the shrinking supply of real wealth. The intermediaries thus end up competing with the actual producers and consumers of goods and services, and since the intermediaries typically have the support of governments and institutional forms, more often than not it’s the intermediaries who win that competition.

It’s not at all hard to see that process at work; all it takes is a stroll down the main street of the old red brick mill town where I live, or any of thousands of other towns and cities in today’s America. Here in Cumberland, there are empty storefronts all through downtown, and empty buildings well suited to any other kind of economic activity you care to name there and elsewhere in town. There are plenty of people who want to work, wage and benefit expectations are modest, and there are plenty of goods and services that people would buy if they had the chance. Yet the storefronts stay empty, the workers stay unemployed, the goods and services remain unavailable. Why?

The reason is intermediation. Start a business in this town, or anywhere else in America, and the intermediaries all come running to line up in front of you with their hands out. Local, state, and federal bureaucrats all want their cut; so do the bankers, the landlords, the construction firms, and so on down the long list of businesses that feed on other businesses, and can’t be dispensed with because this or that law or regulation requires them to be paid their share. The resulting burden is far too large for most businesses to meet. Thus businesses don’t get started, and those that do start up generally go under in short order. It’s the same problem faced by every parasite that becomes too successful: it kills the host on which its own survival depends.

That’s the usual outcome when a heavily intermediated market economy slams face first into the hard realities of decline. Theoretically, it would be possible to respond to the resulting crisis by forcing  disintermediation, and thus salvaging the market economy. Practically, that’s usually not an option, because the disintermediation requires dragging a great many influential economic and political sectors away from their accustomed feeding trough. Far more often than not, declining societies with heavily intermediated market economies respond to the crisis just described by trying to force the buyers and sellers of goods and services to participate in the market even at the cost of their own economic survival, so that some semblance of business as usual can proceed.

Read the full text here.

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