It should be clear at this point that we live in a broken and failing society. If you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly agree, so I won’t inundate you with links to “studies”. The Social Contract of America has been voided. It’s time for a new realm of possibilities.
In order to explode the boundaries of possibility space and open up that new world of options, we need to look deep into the dogmas we hold, and we hold them. And then, we need to move past those dogmas and the reductionist thinking that accompanies them.
I believe that we have conceptualized society in ways that prevent us from truly grasping the wide array of options that exist. Ideology has led us astray. Perhaps this is no more evident in our conceptions of Power (and of the State and History) and of Economics (and of Capitalism).
Society is composed of networks and institutions, all in hierarchical relationships. Yes, we are all individuals, but you cannot understand the individual independent of the networks they are born into. Those who would reduce society to individuals/claim society does not exist and those who would argue that society is driven by trends and institutions, not individuals, are both wrong.
Some important terminology from a previous piece:
Networks arise “organically”. A bunch of people in a localized geographic area (or a connected virtual “area”) will begin to generate networks almost immediately. Trade, friendships, etc. These networks may be entirely transactional, or possess a deeper core to them (like a friendship). These networks are not consciously organized; they arise due to factors related to connectivity.
Institutions on the other hand, do not arise organically. They arise consciously. Institutions arise with a goal. Within the network, a group of people may wish to spread the word about some topic. They organize: they become a formally recognized network both internally and, hopefully for them, externally as well.
understanding networks and institutions this way does not imply that everyone begins on an equal footing when networks are “first established”. We aren’t talking about some mythical state of nature here. Locke lovers, please exit stage left. Hierarchies form naturally and organically.
There is a tendency I have, and one I have adopted from some circles I engage in, to refer to the concept of “Sovereignty”. This can be a very misleading concept. Why? Because it is easy to assume the Sovereign is all-powerful, or otherwise above and before all other Power centers.
The Sovereign is but one power center in the same networks of power centers that we all exist in, and is subject to at least some of the same forces that individuals are.
Yes, it is true, there is always a Sovereign. Ultimately, “anti-statists” have fallen prey to an ideological delusion. There is always an entity that establishes property norms (whether they be capitalistic, communistic, or something else entirely) either through collective social deference to the entity or through a threat of force (or both). There is always a Sovereign and that sovereign has a will.
And here we see yet another failure on the part of power theorists of many persuasions in failing to differentiate between the structural and the individual, and how they interplay. Yes, the structure of power will provide a set of incentive structures, but the individual who is in the position of power has lots of agency on their own. Institutions are not sentient. They are conscious organizations of people, yes, but within the institution there will be differences in values, and the particular individual(s) leading the institution will help shape and direct the institutions. The Great Man theory of history rears its ugly head up at the worst of times.
Failure to account for individual agency within incentive structures is a failure to account for identity. Our identities are shaped by the values/commitments we hold. And there is every reason to believe that within any structure or class or other group in society, there will be a distribution of values. And so the person who is in the position of power matters, not just the structure itself. History is determined not just by the structures and secular trends of society, but also by the individuals who shape, shift, and transform those structures and trends.
Many of the institutions and tools and theories in economics are entirely constructed. Under the guise of ideology, we have been convinced that these constructed rules are immutable. This is, of course, nonsense. I see this in the debates over “capitalism” and “communism” quite frequently: the ideological assumption that these terms are loaded with huge amounts of particular baggage.
But is this really the case? It seems that you can’t get more than 3 leftists to agree on a replacement for capitalism without one of them trying to stab another with an icepick. So is capitalism a similarly varied ideology? “Pro-business” has come to mean “pro-management”/”pro-executive”.
But is there another way?
Before beginning, we should look at concepts and strip them of ideological baggage. Drill down to the core.
“Money” is some thing that lays a socially recognized and accepted claim on some amount of goods/services.
Money does not necessarily have to be a long term store of value. We could imagine being paid in money that became worthless after 24 hours. It would be a very silly system, but it is conceivable. This is what I mean by possibility spaces. Attaching any properties to money besides the basic one I listed above is ideology.
Now, what about capitalism? I think almost everyone can agree that capitalism entails private property and commodity production (the production for market exchange). But when we drill down, these issues become a lot more malleable.
For instance, private property (or “enclosure”) does not necessarily mean that there are distinct classes of capitalists and wage-laborers. It is conceivable to imagine a society full of co-ops wherein workers own a respective part of the company they work for and take a proportional amount of the revenue from the company (based on the amount they work, how hard the work is, etc.). In this manner, we don’t have profit being extracted by the owners of capital from the wage-laborers - we have collapsed the class distinctions.
And this isn’t a pipedream. Adam Smith discussed the “independent workman”, perhaps even as an ideal, who owns their own land and capital:
In his Wealth of Nations, Smith makes numerous examinations of the conflicting interests between Landowner, Worker, and Capitalist, and how the interests of capitalists and landowners are frequently at odds (with each other, and with the common good of society). He tempers his laissez-faire views considerably and presents a potential ideal of unifying the three (landowner, worker, and capitalist) in one person, the “independent workman”, whose interests are (allegedly) always aligned with the common good of society.
Okay, so even the father of modern capitalism believed in something that looks like co-ops. But even with such a system and the abolition of wage-labor/profit, we still have commodity production. And commodity production is central to accumulation, even if profit is not being extracted.
But what if accumulation wasn’t possible (or at least was seriously constrained)? What if you married the universal co-op system with an ownership framework based on persistent productive use (ex: you own the home you spend >32 weeks in per year, but you can’t own 10 homes since you don’t persistently live in all of them)? And what if you combined that with a system in which money itself decays, a la the system of Silvio Gesell? Obviously this piece is already too long for me to go into depth on this, but it seems that you can build a system that is still defending private property/enclosure, rejecting planned economics, and maintaining commodity production while preventing accumulation.
And what if commodity production was not essential to capitalism? What I mean is, you can ask the question “can you unify exchange-value and use-value?” Or, in other words, can the questions of “what should I produce to make the most profit/revenue” and “what should I produce to fulfill the greatest needs in society” have the same answer? If you believe this is conceptually possible, then you have a system of private property/enclosure and an unplanned economy that prevents accumulation, eliminates wage-labor, collapses the class system, and indirectly coordinates production to fulfill need instead of pure exchange-value.
I am not necessarily arguing for any of these positions (at least not yet ;) lol), but I lay them out to provide an example of how to strip ideological blinders away. To think in terms of POSSIBILITIES. To formulate a new basis for understanding our world.
We must begin not from what seems “pragmatic” or “feasible”, but rather from what is CONCEIVABLE. We must strip our concepts down to their core, and think “how can this be done differently”/”what is essential vs. contingent about this idea or structure?” Only then can we truly begin to grasp our way out.
The endless capitalism versus communism debates are so beyond boring and useless. The libertarian/anarchist/anti-statist nonsense on one hand and the “individuals have no agency and everything is the product of structural forces” delusion on the other hand leave us incapable of properly understanding power and society (and, by extension, the State and history). And if you cannot understand the playing field, how do you expect to change it?
Creativity and reframing is necessary not only in terms of thinking about the problems we face, but also in terms of building alternatives. Institutions tend not to die, but rather get outcompeted. If we want to outcompete existing institutions, we need to think creatively about ways to build better alternatives. And as I continue this series, I will (eventually) get to looking at a number of institutions in need of alternatives.
I hope you are enjoying the