The 21st century arrived with a series of shocks: financial collapse, climate crises, immigration and geopolitical polarisation, student debt, fake news and unprecedented wildfires.
These shocks are forcing us to come to grips with a new reality. Now we have coronavirus, and event that seems to encapsulate all the others, amplifying the fragility of our institutions and systems. We come face to face with the sheer helplessness of the atomised individual.
Huddled in our homes, forcibly distanced from each other, our fate is being decided by the invisible virus on one side, and the invisible hand of the market on the other. Both the virus and the market are only code and case, have no life of their own, but persist by colonising the life force. And just as the virus is made more dangerous by a long incubation period masked by a lack of symptoms, the market too has had a long incubation period that was masked by a dream of prosperity.
These natural systems express dynamic complexity, resilience and enduring evolution.
There has been a lot of reflection around what is happening to us, what meaning can we make of this. Many people are highlighting how we are awakening to the interdependency of all people, how we are all connected. This is often spoken of with spiritual overtones. But there is something pernicious I want to point out here: we are experiencing two very different kinds of systems.
One system is fragile and perpetually at risk for catastrophic collapse: This is the primary system run by the government, health care institutions, the global market-based supply chain, and the media broadcast industry. This is the system that threatens us with loss of our freedoms, increasing surveillance and authoritarian power.
The other system is an ancient system. It is a system of self-organised participation based on deep human pro-social values and collective intelligence. This is a highly resilient system, which is grounded in our interdependencies with each other and the deeper connections we have with the living world.
The first system, system is characterised by an asymmetric dependence of the individual on centralised powers. It is designed to have strongly coupled relationships in such a way that instead of absorbing shocks, it amplifies them in all directions. This “strong coupling” is a result of perverse incentives in our financial markets which seeks efficiency at the risk of fluidity. But, as detailed further below, this “efficiency-seeking effect” is itself an outcome of perverse incentives that maximise wealth extraction from economic. Under this kind of system, the individual agents are subordinated to the logics of system itself.
The second system follows the natural laws of complex ecologies which are characterised by multi-valent reciprocal dependencies among sovereign individuals. Here the power is distributed among all agents, who self-organise through loosely-coupled connections. These natural systems express dynamic complexity, resilience and enduring evolution.
When we see all the confusion, incompetency, panic and hysteria on TV, we are witnessing the failure of the centralised system to function in the face of complex challenges. By contrast, the simple ways we have organised, behind the scenes, locally and on the internet, are examples of taking back our own agency, and sovereignty, in the company of people with whom we are actually connected.
This is what the media wants you to believe—that when things get tough on a big scale, only Big Daddy can help.
We are also feeling dominated by the authoritarianism of the centralised system, whose edicts come down through the broadcast news; while at the same time, we are giving and receiving meaningful acts of kindness and care from each other, either at home, or through distributed media platforms. Because we are processing these two feelings simultaneously, it is important to clearly wedge the distinctions in our minds.
There is a subtle manipulation going on in the media which would have you projecting that the sweet feeling of connection onto the mechanisms of authoritarian power that comes from the illusion that the centralised system is taking care of you. This is what the media wants you to believe—that when things get tough on a big scale, only Big Daddy can help. Nothing can be further from the truth. The centralised system is fighting for its own life.
So please take the time to create a mental model in your head of what is actually happening here. Because many have abdicated their social connections and agency to a centralised system that has become increasingly monolithic, and many have increasingly become atomised appendages to it, and thus are subject to perpetual bouts of catastrophic collapse.
But because we preserve, as human beings, as part of the ecology of the living world through which we are connected to our food, water, and health, we can take back our ability to create strong networks of care and well-being that are resilient to systemic failure. In fact, these networks of distributed agency among sovereign individuals who actually care for each other, is the core of human evolutionary success.
What if, instead of turning toward Big Daddy, we redesigned our society to amplify responses where we turn toward each other, and rely on distributed means? What would it take for such a society to be born? I have outlined 6 steps toward the co-creation towards a new prosperity that would engage the power of distributed agency, self-organisation, and collective intelligence, to bring about a new prosperity, one that would guarantee both individual sovereignty and collective resilience. These are:
Expand our political-economic imagination
Design a global commons in service to life
Experience the deeper sources of connection
Expand circles of trust and concern
Reinvent education for the future
Pivot to digital naturalism
We pay more for the food than the food costs, because the corporations extract wealth from that transaction.
There are reasons to believe that our imaginations are being stimulated as a result of the CV-19 crisis. We are worried about our food supply, so we start learning more about it. We may be surprised just how uninformed we have been about the wastefulness of our food system, or the complexity of the food supply chain. Sitting at home yearning for company and conversation, we might take up a thought experiment with our friend:
If the current financial system completely collapses, then people won't have money to buy food, truckers won't have jobs to transport it, grocery stores will close, food surpluses will spoil and the migrant farmers sent home. Now, did the earth all of a sudden fail to produce food? Or did the sun renege on the laws of physics? What then stops us from planting the seeds, picking the harvest, shipping the food, opening the stores and feeding our neighbours?
You might find that you already have an accurate suspicion about how things work. If you pursue the question, you will find that what stops us is the way we construct monetary policy today. Money is no longer an instrument for the flow of goods and services. Rather, it has been redesigned to be an instrument of wealth extraction on top of value exchange.
What this means is twofold: Each time we exchange money for a good or service, the corporations make a profit. This means that we pay more for the food than the food costs, because the corporations extract wealth from that transaction. For most of the time, this is where capitalism extracted most of its wealth—through corporate profit. Today there is a second, more pernicious layer of extraction on top of this that even squeezes the corporations. The banking system has “financial instruments” that apply more extraction.
The financial sector, called FIRE (finance, insurance, real-estate) currently makes up 20% of US GDP, which is double what it was 70 years ago. So corporations extract wealth from value exchange, and the FIRE sector extracts wealth from corporations. The third layer of course is taxes. Most of our taxes go toward goods and services. Let us assume that the government spends wisely (a very problematic assumption!). The government purchases a lot of goods and services through the private sector. Which means that each time there is an exchange, the corporations and FIRE extract their cut. Now remember, their “cut” contributes nothing to the production of essential goods and services. It only contributes wealth to the individuals at the top of the extraction system.
And the government doesn’t just purchase goods and services. Almost 12% of government spending is servicing interest and debt—which is a direct extraction of your tax money into the banking system. In addition—and this one’s hard to calculate because of its complexity—the US has a health care budget that is projected to reach $ 6 Trillion by 2027. These expenditures don’t pay for health services—they pay health insurers sitting at the top of the FIRE level of extraction.
The more complex the supply chains are, the more opportunities for wealth to be extracted along the way.
The system we have built has become enormously complex, not because producing and transporting food is enormously complex. Neither is it enormously complex to provide health care and education services to each other. The system has become enormously complex because it endures continuously increasing pressure from increasing layers of extraction.
Consider the recent agreements to send US raised chickens to China to be processed, and then returned to US stores. We have been told that because of the economy of scale, and the wage-prices gap between US and China, that this is actually more efficient than raising and processing and selling and eating chickens locally! There is a lot of economic mumbo-jumbo that is staggeringly complex. So we give up trying to understand it.
Yet it defies our common sense! Sure the corporations squeeze expenses by sending US chickens to China to be processed. But that is a limited perspective. This kind of calculus only exists because the subsidies for doing so incentivise the outcome. And why are the subsidies designed in this way? Remember, our monetary policy does not exist to serve the efficient flow of goods and services. It exists to amplify the opportunities for wealth extraction. So the more complex the supply chains are, the more opportunities for wealth to be extracted along the way. This is the manufactured complexity in the system! It places enormous pressures on businesses to compete, so small business cannot contribute even at the local level.
Imagine instead, an economy where the flow of essential goods and services (food, energy, transportation communication, health care and education)—were not subject to this unruly, pernicious complexity of wealth extraction. This economy would be much more straight forward. The costs would be transparent. The origins of production and the transportation routes could be known by everyone. Local hubs of production could easily contribute and join the global supply chain. Distribution channels would be more open and fluid. The system would be more sustainable, and less subject to systemic crises. This one change alone has the power to revitalise life, especially in devastated urban and rural areas, which are driven to bankruptcy by the globalisation of supply. It is an illusion that the global markets are more efficient with respect to the flow of essential goods and services. They are hugely wasteful and predatory. It would be easy – simple, really, given the kind of talent we have in the information economy, to design a monetary system that was independent of FIRE extraction. Call it “citizen currency” and guarantee its trust through blockchain technology.
Design a global commons in service to life
In order to ensure the flow of essential goods and services, based on a citizen currency and self-organised distribution channels, the global infrastructure would need to be redesigned to be a global commons. A global commons would mean universal access to information, communication, and citizen currency flows that are integrated with production-transportation-distribution channels around the world. We already have such systems. Think of a giant Ebay, or a kind of Amazon that is owned by collective stakeholders, where both the goods and services and the information flows are freely available for self-organised collective actions. People already respond by organising volunteer groups and food banks to help others in need and in times of crisis. With more powerful tools, and decoupled from the perverse logics of the market—this response could amplify a hundredfold. It would remind people of the deep interconnectedness of all of us. It would highlight the meaningful and purposeful participation in the exchange of essential goods and services. It would let us know, on a daily basis, who is producing our food, what farmers need our help, what surpluses need to be moved, where our food is coming from, what farming practices are involved. We would be tied again to the seasonal growth of food, and take back responsibility for how animals are raised for meat. The idea of local coops, and small agribusiness, invested in organic growing methods, and humane animal husbandry, would be compounded across the world by the choices we make as a global commons of mutual stakeholders.
Prior to civilisation people were connected to each other through kinship and the natural world on which their survival and happiness depended.
Experience the deeper sources of connection
Civilisation has always been constructed around an ideology of connection. This ideology has taken many forms and complexified over time along with the cultural technologies that support and maintain them. Prior to civilisation people were connected to each other through kinship and the natural world on which their survival and happiness depended. People organised into clans around sacred totem members—human kin as well as animals, plants, and landscape features that composed a natural habitat. There was a deep sense of connection as interbeing with nature. This sense of connection is preserved in the indigenous people who have carried their traditional practices into modern times.
With the rise of the big agricultural city-states, the natural world no longer played the vital role of grounding our sense of human connection into a larger sense of interbeing. Instead, powerful stories were told about the Divine King and the mythological order of the cosmos. These stories enabled people to believe they were part of a larger unity, despite their own everyday experience in a highly stratified and unequal society. Neither the slave destined to his life of burden, nor the virgin princess, destined to be sacrificed, questioned the implicate order of the Divine Kingdom.
As civilisations evolve and complexify, the existing ideology breaks down and is replaced by a new one. George Herbert Mead called this the “social object” or “cult value” of a society. It is also referred to as the “social imaginary.” Merlin Donald traced the evolution of the social imaginaries through different phases of civilisation, noting that as new technologies emerged, the social imaginary became more powerful. Michael Mann noted that the social imaginary functioned as a power force of social cohesion, and becomes increasingly important as societies grow larger. Here “power” means the ability to group more people over a larger geographic range under one ideology. The invention of text gave Religions the power to undermine the mythological-narrative based social imaginary. By circulating the sacred texts of the bible, torah and koran, entire new cultures were being born. Eventually people from all over the world came to recognise their connection by a common religion.
Prior to WWII, it was hoped that religious affiliation could unify the various ethnic and tribal groups. After the war, a new kind of social imaginary emerged as post-war secular humanism. This was anchored in a new geopolitical arrangement, backed by the power of the US military and US dollar. The secularisation of the ideology was coupled to scientific materialism and economic rationalism. All three together—secular humanism, scientific materialism, and economic rationalism—composed the new social construction of reality, and set the stage for neoliberal capitalism.
The most recent evolution of the social imaginary emerged with the new digital technologies and the exponential rise of big data and computational AI. As the post-modern critique began to erode confidence in both scientific materialism and economic rationalism, the social imaginary upon which our collective actions are based, slowly slipped toward AI-based interpretations of activities in the financial markets. Today this same AI targets big data capture through surveillance practices, such that AI can interpret social activities in the same way that it interprets financial markets.
We have forgotten where the deep sources of our human nature bleed into the natural world which is our common inheritance.
The ideologies we construct around what it is to be a people, how we fashion our ideas of connection, also determine where we go for “ultimate authority” be it the Divine King, the monotheistic God, science, or the market. Today AI is emerging as the “ultimate authority” to which we will concede when we disagree. This is one direction we are taking as a people. It slips in surreptitiously because we have yet to come to terms with where our interdependency and interconnectedness lies. We have forgotten where the deep sources of our human nature bleed into the natural world which is our common inheritance.
Unlike all other times in history, however, today we have disclosed the social imaginary for what it is —a poor replacement for our originary connection—our interbeing with the natural living world, the biotic forces and planetary processes through which we, along with all other life forms, have evolved. The social imaginary is not only a diminished representation of our interbeing, it is especially constructed for maintaining a highly stratified, exploitative, and predatory society.
Ever since the beginning of civilisation we have built the illusion of unity as somewhere up there, somewhere in our future if we can just get it right. This is because we have turned our backs on the ever-present reality of our prior unity in the depths of our evolutionary becoming. The deeper evolutionary layers of our being are the larger universals. We are precariously tethered by an ideology of the market, but we are innately connected through our participation in and interdependence with the life force of the planet.
The social imaginary requires us to maintain a kind of epistemological evangelism in the face of a conflicting ontological reality. The deeper, ontological reality is that we come from unity and grow toward diversity. There is no need to fashion a story or a system to “seal the deal.” The deed has been already secured through our natural human heritage. The danger with evangelising the social imaginary, is that it blinds us to the very realities right in front of our eyes. We believe not what we see, feel, and experience, but what the social imaginary authorises us to believe. In the process we lose our perceptual receptivity to what is happening.
When we rely on the social construction, we see a food system that can feed the world, an industry that needs antibiotics to raise meat, and a health industry that relies on vaccines to defer pandemics. When we settle into our connection to the living world, and rely on our perceptual faculties to receive information from our lived experience, we know that the food system is wasteful and toxic, that animals raised in cages on a continual supply of antibiotics are neither happy or healthy, that the virus breeds in the very same conditions under which we raise them. When we settle into our deep interbeing we know, not through complex systems thinking or computational logic, but through perceptual receptivity that comes through feeling and direct experience, that when we cut down a forest, we cut out a piece of our lungs, that when we put toxins in the water, we destroy our immune system. Experiencing our deeper sources of connection, receiving the reality of our interbeing, is a necessary step in transitioning to a time of true prosperity.