Dr Tyson Yunkaporta is an academic, an arts critic, and a researcher who belongs to the Apalech Clan in far north Queensland. He carves traditional tools and weapons and also works as a senior lecturer in Indigenous Knowledges at Deakin University in Melbourne.
Looking at global systems from indigenous perspectives, Tyson challenges entrenched Western ways of thinking and acting. As a son of indigenous ancestors of Australia and a well-read scientist, he analyzes modern culture from both the indigenous perspective of interconnectedness and the analytical clarity of science. This approach allows him radically to question the fundamental assumptions behind our economic and social systems and values.
Elizabeth Debold spoke to Tyson about the market myth and relationship as value, and about how indigenous perspectives and practices can show us ways out of our current crises. Emergent, complex, and dynamic systems, Tyson argues, have to be built on trust and relationships.
THE MARKET MYTH AND RELATIONAL ECONOMIES
Elizabeth Debold: What, from your perspective, is the myth of the market?
Tyson Yunkaporta: The idea that there is a free market that works by natural laws may be the myth, because the system is rigged. In a free market, supply and demand should come into equilibrium. For example, if someone takes too many trees from a forest, then the forest becomes threatened. That means there is less supply. So, demand increases and the price, the value, of trees increases. No one can afford those trees anymore, so they are left alone until they grow back.
There is supposed to be this regulatory feedback loop that balances things, so that trust is not an issue because the system regulates itself and returns to equilibrium. But when you skew this system and have somebody at the top of a hierarchy or a caste system who has more tokens of value than anybody else, they can afford to keep taking the trees. They can also use that as leverage to force people into more labor, more debt, more servitude, and increase control that way.
Ideally, an economy should be like an ecology that is embedded in the landscape. If that land-based economy were tracking the relational flows of trade and governance, then maybe the laws would work. But that is not the case.
In our indigenous economies, the value of the exchange is in the relationship that's formed. There is a bond that's formed in an exchange, and you're now related, you have obligations to each other. It was actually a relational credit system, in which you build up relationships of exchange and mutual aid. There are debits and credits between you, within your relation, but it is not a debt-based system either. Your obligation is to the relationship, and the value is intrinsic to that.
Elizabeth: That relational credit is not simply that I give you X and you pay back X.
Tyson: No, it's not negotiated in that way. It is meant to strengthen a relationship of mutual aid. It is not going to serve you to hold people in the red. Within your own family, there's a demand-sharing economy, where anything that you want, you can have, if it's available. There is a perfect supply and demand equilibrium in a demand-sharing economy. But only if nobody games the system to gain a competitive advantage, which we call ‘humbug’. People who do that lose cultural authority.
Elizabeth: What is the basis of an economy based on relationship?
Tyson: You need to have trust for a traditional relational credit economy to work. For that you need to be living under the Law of the land. When the Law is in the land, the land itself is like a massive smart contract. The contract is permanent and public, so nobody can ever seize the land of another. That's been true for most of the history of our species. There have been some massive disruptions over the last 10.000 years, but that's just a blip in deep time history.
THE BIG SORCERY
Elizabeth: How do you see the dynamics of our modern financial system?
Tyson: That’s different from the real economy, in which we're buying and sharing food, distributing that in a household, in our neighborhoods. Tokens of value in this real economy have high velocity, so the more times a value token is exchanged in a community, the more relationships are created. A high velocity of the dollar makes for a very healthy economy on the ground.
That does not translate to the illusory economy of Wall Street, which is leveraging the ground on which that relational economy is standing. It's leveraging that for debt which then becomes more assets that can then be leveraged for more debt. It’s trading in abstracts, rather than real relationships. They just gamble on futures into fractal infinity in these black boxes that humans can't even understand anymore, they are that abstracted.
So, there's this kind of sorcery going on. It all rests on the illusion that land is capital. Sixty percent of the capital in the world is land. It's capital that can be leveraged for debt. So therefore, it's the basis of most of the illusory financial system.
Originally, the idea of the mortgage, which means land that could be foreclosed on for a debt and could be used to secure debt, was just a little trick that was invented to legally take Indian land once it was given over in a treaty. It was invented in the Americas.
Elizabeth: So, the modern economic system moved from relationship and trust to abstraction and isolation. It's a trustless system.
Tyson: Since the 1980s, it’s all been about social fragmentation under neoliberalism. In the end, it was about finding ways to break up communities, to force everybody to believe they were solo free agents in a free market economy, dynamic individuals who would be doing the dog-eat-dog thing, the competitive thing, who would be standing on each other's heads in order to get to the prize. Competition and rivalry. The Game Theory, the Social Darwinism, the Selfish Gene.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TIME AND PLACE
Elizabeth: How can an indigenous perspective show us new ways out of that development?
Tyson: An indigenous perspective gives you the capacity for a deep time view of history and a dynamic systems viewwhere you can make some pretty good predictions.
For example, in traditional indigenous inquiry we include variables that don't exist in contemporary research in science. We include variables like time and place. That might sound emotional and irrational. But no, these things are very important. For example, a scientist might extract the fat from an animal or the sap from a tree, from anywhere at any random time and then test it to see if it has benefits. But of course they have to replicate the results, and this often doesn’t work out for a lot of substances that they extract from nature, because they don't include time and place as variables. The trees growing in one place have very different properties from the trees growing in stony ground over there.
There are seasonal variables to consider as well. Fruit bat fat in one season is asthma medicine, but in the next it is not even worth eating. When I talk about time and place being variables in our indigenous methods of inquiry, it is a very rigorous thing that can ensure that you can replicate the results again and again. When your inquiry ignores those variables, you can't verify a hypothesis and upgrade it to a theory. As a result, a lot of non-indigenous R + D is unable to align with the amazing power of the laws of nature at scale. They know there is an X factor missing in many of their models, and they’re starting to seek that now in dialogue with Indigenous thinkers.
A DYING SYSTEM
Elizabeth: Do you think that our economic system is breaking down?
Tyson: It is, and you can see it reflected in the knowledge economy, which also has the equivalent of a parasitic financial system sucking it dry. There are tokens of change, token people used as gambling chips to trade in hopeful futures. We’ve been tricked into thinking that we can change our condition by changing attitudes and symbols, so we ignore the baked-in exploitation of our economic structures and simply try to make them feel more just, and so that system remains free to eat us, eat itself and take everything with it.
In the academy, we have been encouraged to use the theory of post-structuralism. We ignore the structures and the systems and we look at the discourses, because there is nothing outside of the text. If you change the discourse, then you change the world! Yay! So, for 30 years, we've failed to leverage structural change because we’ve only been looking at one data set and examining a very limited range of variables. The only other standpoint available to us was openly supporting the worst aspects of the structure – this scholarly endeavor has actually been effective, because at least it sees the structural dynamics. It has created most of the change during this phase shift, but in terribly destructive directions.
Meanwhile, the rest of us have been challenging structural inequality by centering the voice of some poor random bastard from lower down in the caste system, rather than creating mechanisms to distribute resources and power evenly to their neighbourhood.
Change now means that people do their branding individually; we are like little corporations but we’re really the commodity. We're branding ourselves and we're selling ourselves. Everybody can browse to find the marginal voice that they want to center and like and get behind. It's a market of narcissists, buying and selling each other while talking truth to power.
But deep down, everybody feels the same frustration, the same terror, the same instinct that everything is dying. Everybody feels driven to act, but we're not acting on the structures that we need to tear down or the parts of those structures that we need to build on.
A FAILURE OF PERSPECTIVE
Elizabeth: When people talk about the end of capitalism or changing capitalism, there seems to be a failure of imagination as to what a different economy could be.
Tyson: It's not a failure of imagination, it's a failure of perspective. It's a failure to perceive the structures of things. You can imagine what colored faces you want to see on the board of your corporation, and you can make that dream come true, but the communities of those board members will still be suffering and dying under the same extractive system.
We've imagined that perfect world. We have centered indigenous voices. We have centered the voices of women of color. We have platformed women. We have done all of these things. Everybody's saying the right words. Major corporations are saying Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police. Everybody is agreed on what the awesome fantasy should be. Everybody's imagined a future that's fair and just. The only problem is we haven't changed the structure because we can't see it. There is not a failure of imagination, there’s too much imagination. Stop imagining things and look at what is there.
Elizabeth: How do we re-engineer these structures?
Tyson: A relational system will design itself based on human patterns of collaboration and cooperation. One example are the Kurds from northern Syria. They've had no functional government for a very long time because the people who are nominally in charge of their state are too busy fighting each other, so they've had to get on with their lives. Each family, each block, each neighborhood and scaling up to each municipality is taking care of all the education, sanitation, food, water supply chains to keep their economy and community going. They already had the structures of that within the Kurdish culture and in the landscape.
And it did scale, because the different municipalities federated together quite naturally, so you have millions of people self-organising without any bosses. There are people who take care of the administrative work for as long as they can. Nobody can do it for much more than a year, you need a break. So, it just keeps rotating around. Communities nominate people to do those jobs. There is no plan, there's no blueprint. It's all emergent and it's the most functional thing coming out of the most dysfunctional circumstances you can imagine.
Talk to anybody who has been in a natural disaster and you’ll see them smile when they remember what happened afterwards, when the community all came together to help out. We all have that patterning in us as humans. It's a very easy thing to return to. That's what people do.
You don't have to imagine your own special economic system that you're going to design to save the world. That's hubris. Just look around you. Consider the variables of time and place. Bring that into your inquiry. Have a look at the systems that you're living in and the structures and where they can be leveraged at the local level on the ground, quietly in your family, community, your block, your neighborhood: What can you do to hack the system and help each other out? How can you start a parasitic little feedback loop there, bearing in mind that all symbioses begin in parasitic relation?
That stuff spreads like wildfire and you don't need to advertise it (in fact, keep it quiet or it will get stamped out really fast). If, let’s say, thirty percent of people did that, you would have a different economic system before you knew it. It scaled in northern Syria within just a couple of years to about three million people, all under this one self-governing system, which is emergent, complex, and dynamic. Everything is distributed because that's what works in a healthy system, in an actual free market economy.
It is rule of the people, by the people, for the people, and you don't have a president, you don't have a prime minister, you don't have a CEO, you don't even have a bank. So, we do not need to imagine better futures, but look at how we can change the structures and relationships at the place where we are. Through that, we can create the conditions for the emergence of new structures.
This interview was first published in German in Evolve magazine no. 32 in December 2021.