(Read the essay, or watch the 14 minute video version here in this little box, or on its Youtube page, or full-screen.)
Poverty and war have tormented us for ages, but they won’t for much longer; soon we will be forced to choose between harmony and extinction. Any compromise between those two extremes is nearing an end, because information and ecocide are both growing toward tipping points. And the new vision we need for survival is uncomplicated but also unfamiliar, especially regarding economics.
When people blame the problems of the world on “unregulated capitalism” or “predatory capitalism,” they are implying that capitalism itself is a good and healthy thing. They are implying that we have merely strayed from its sound principles into corruption, a superficial problem that can be cleaned up through reform. But these reformists are mistaken. They have not seen the world as it is; they have not understood what the principles really are. The evils of inequality, externalities, and alienation are inherent in any market economy. To halt the torment and destruction, we’ll have to learn how to share. That didn’t work in some previous attempts, but that just means we’ll have to try doing it differently; the reasons for doing it are still valid. Forcing it on people won’t work, so a change in law won’t be enough; we need a change in culture.
The problem is not “unregulated capitalism.” Writing regulations more carefully will not save us. Satan’s army of lawyers can find him a loophole whenever he wants to escape one of his contracts. And our plutocracy simply disregards its contracts — just look at all of the US government’s violations of its own laws. Money erodes its way through regulations as surely as water finds a way downhill. Any separation between government and big business, between regulators and regulated, is illusory: They share a revolving door, and sometimes a bed. The only way to avoid rule by the wealthy class is to not have a wealthy class.
And fighting against one Monsanto or Halliburton at a time is futile. It’s like Hercules fighting the Hydra: Each time he cut off one head, two more grew in its place. We must look deeper, to what Monsanto’s poisons and Halliburton’s wars have in common.
When Neo awakened from The Matrix, physical reality changed for him, but that film was only a metaphor. When we awaken from the propaganda all around us, physical objects are not changed, but their significance is changed, and our history and expectations are vastly changed.
The old world is dying; we must move on to the new world being born. How will we make the great change? I don’t know the details of that. But it has already begun; you can see it in the peaceful demonstrators being beaten by police. Awareness and understanding are spreading, and our foremost tactic must be to spread them further. When enough people see what is really going on, we will unite, and we will find a way to change things, and the violence will end.
1st evil: INEQUALITY (3:30 in video)
The data in Thomas Piketty’s recent book shows that increasing economic inequality is a normal trend in capitalism, not an aberration. The problem is deeper than debt-based currency or any other particular method of exploitation and theft. It is inherent in all market economies, even barter economies: Market transactions increase inequality, because they favor whichever participant is in the stronger bargaining position. The only way to not have a wealthy class is by not having a market — that is, by sharing.
Increasing inequality is simplified in the board game Monopoly, which always ends with all the players but one totally impoverished. That’s the outcome even if no one cheats, so the problem is in the principles, not in “corruption.”
The recent study by Gilens and Page shows quantitatively that the USA is a plutocracy, not a democracy. Just a few people now own our homes, workplaces, debts, government, mass communications media, everything. Privately owned workplaces are little dictatorships; that’s why we hate Mondays. Progress brings higher productivity, but its benefits are pocketed by the owners of the workplaces; for the rest of us, progress means layoffs, not leisure.
Psychopaths seek positions of power over others, and even people who are not already psychopaths become corrupted by power if they acquire it; strong evidence of that was given by the Stanford Prison Experiment. We see cruelty wherever the opportunity for it arises — in prison guards, police, soldiers, workplace managers, business tycoons, dictators, or even democratically elected politicians — though in that last case, they cover it up by conducting much of their work in secret and lying about the rest. All these bullies proclaim, and perhaps believe, that they are deserving and that their victims are not.
Clearly, we should reorganize our society so that there are no concentrations of power. That requires not only replacing markets with sharing, but also replacing authoritarian hierarchical government with peer-to-peer networking. This is why I’m an anarcho-commie, which means share and don’t hit, the first two things we all learned in kindergarten.
2nd evil: EXTERNALITIES (6:17 in video)
Any market transaction is negotiated by a buyer and a seller, but it may affect other parties besides those two. Such effects are outside the considerations of the negotiations, and so they are called externalities. During the crash of 2008, Wall Street traders often reassured one another with the acronym “IBGYBG,” which stood for “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”
Externalities are more due to indifference than outright malice, and so you might think their effects would be random — sometimes harmful and sometimes beneficial — but it doesn’t work that way. The proverbial “bull in a china shop” is not motivated by malice, but he is never beneficial.
Market prices are far from true costs, because they leave out the externalities. Thus the market is not at all the “wise and efficient” allocator of resources claimed by its worshipers. Conventional textbooks gloss over this topic, as though it were something minor, but in fact externalities are enormous: War, poverty, and ecocide are inevitable consequences of any market economy. And by the way, the ecocide is a lot worse than most people realize; feedback loops are about to send us over a climate cliff.
A living whale is an awesome creature, but it has no monetary value. The parts of a recently killed whale are worth a million dollars in quick profit to someone who doesn’t care about the consequences elsewhere. That’s why the whales are disappearing. And that’s why the ecosystem is disappearing too, though it’s larger, more abstract, and harder to see.
You might think that the few people in power would get together and conspire to save the planet that they have seized for their own. But that’s not how they’re behaving.
For instance, a few years ago, the Arctic began melting rapidly. That’s one of the climate feedback loops, and it should have been a wakeup call to stop using fossil fuels before they kill everyone. But instead the plutocrats said, “oh goody, now it will be so much easier to extract fossil fuels from the Arctic!”
The market compels its biggest players to compete against each other in offering quick profits to investors, without regard to consequences. Any big players who find scruples will fall behind in the competition, and will be replaced. We need to overthrow not just the big players, but the entire system.
3rd evil: ALIENATION (9:06 in video)
The problem is not just in our rulers. It’s in all of us, in our culture, in the so-called “American dream“: You keep your stuff in your house, I keep my stuff in my house, and God help the guy who doesn’t have a house, because no one else can help him, in our present socioeconomic system. We get the illusion that my well being doesn’t depend on yours, and I don’t need to care about you, and in fact I can’t afford to care about you. We blame the less fortunate for their bad luck, because that’s easier than facing up to the fact that we might be next, that the system is unjust, and that we don’t know how to fix it. We may try to be kind, because that’s human nature, but that’s swimming upstream against the current of separateness.
How blind are we to our own culture? Compare it with physics. An apple’s mass, volume, and colour are objective and measurable traits, independent of any observer. The “owner” of the apple is merely a story that we agree upon, one that can be changed by whoever controls the courts. And yet it has become impossible for us to imagine an apple without an owner.
Our possessions separate us psychologically, and that in turn legitimizes our material separateness. Apathy and alienation seem inevitable and normal. We are forced to compete against each other for survival; friendships become commodities and strategic alliances. We’re distrustful, and our anxiety about lack of security is medically harmful. The wealthy are harmfully stressed too, by their desire to stay ahead, and by their lack of the things that money can’t buy. Lacking meaning, purpose, and direction in our lives, we turn to drugs and entertainments. We see ourselves alone and helpless, and few of us realize that everyone else is alone in much the same way.
No wonder random shootings have become commonplace in our shopping malls. The only thing that can make us safe is a change to a culture in which everyone cares about everyone else and no one gets left behind. But that kind of caring will require sharing. To shelter the homeless and to end the prevalence of sh*t jobs, we’ll have to restructure the entire economy, and we’ll have to change how we feel about one another.
We’ve been told — and some of us have believed it — that it’s human nature to be greedy, selfish, and lazy. We’ve been told that humans work only for private gain, and work well only in competition. We’ve been told that our culture and behaviour can’t change. But none of that is true.
The Fall from Grace was 10,000 years ago, with the invention of the word “mine,” and we’ve lived in its shadow ever since. But throughout the 200,000 years before that, we lived cooperatively, without rulers, sharing everything of importance, and that’s still our deeper nature, our genetic heritage. You can see the cooperation at any traffic merge.
“Half full” and “half empty” are optimistic and pessimistic observations of the same glass. But human nature is not just what we observe. It’s what we choose and aspire to be. Even if the reformists were right — that it is possible to make selfishness viable — why would anyone want to? Right now our culture encourages our worst behaviour; let’s replace it with a culture that brings out our better side.
I’m hoping for a miracle. That doesn’t necessarily involve supernatural intervention; Charles Eisenstein defined a “miracle” to be simply an event that most people believe impossible until it happens. The miracle I’m hoping for — and actually, I believe it is possible, even if a lot of people don’t — is that some good ideas will spread very quickly, and people everywhere will begin sharing and cooperating. That’s the only thing that might still save us from the rapidly accelerating ecocide. Can we shed our cynicism, and see with new eyes, and give each other the inspiration we need?