Tuesday, December 8, 2015


I try here to critique an article in the guardian on postcapitalism.  My thoughts are in red, and the original is in black

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed – not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

The reduction of the need for work was promised during the rise of capitalism with the industrial revolution, so promising it again rings hollow. It's hard to determine whether the need for work decreased or not, but hours of work certainly haven't decreased. People are working harder today than the average medieval peasant or craftsperson, regardless of whether the need has decreased.

Some say that the need has decreased only because we have "petroleum slaves".  This is unsustainable and therefore so is anything like postcapitalism that depends on it.

I don't know how the relationship between work and wages has been loosened and how that would help make postcapitalism possible.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant.

I don't know why you can't have markets based on abundance. Just because there is enough doesn't mean a market isn't a useful way to exchange goods and services. Sure, if each individual was able to produce everything for themselves, you wouldn't need markets, but that is not related to scarcity or abundance. Also, information is only as abundant as there are people creating and interpreting it and the material basis to disseminate it. The internet has a large material and energy cost and we live on a finite planet. Finiteness does not imply scarcity, abundance does not imply infinite resources.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy.

There were many other rises of collaborative production before the information age and they mostly either failed or became capitalist. There is some (sometimes lots of) internal  collaboration even in the most competitive company. Wikipedia does respond to market forces--as long as they need money they will continue to raise it and people will only donate if they feel like Wikipedia is meeting a market need. I do agree that less hierarchical networks (such as Wikipedia) are becoming more possible.

Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm. Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces have proliferated, barely noticed by the economics profession, and often as a direct result of the shattering of the old structures in the post-2008 crisis.

I don't see why these should fare any better than the Communautes de Travail. Successful food coops start out with postcapitalist ideals but after a few years it is hard to distinguish them from Whole Foods. Time banks and alternative currencies don't last long or don't do much commerce because they are too dependent on the capitalist economy for their survival. 

You only find this new economy if you look hard for it. In Greece, when a grassroots NGO mapped the country’s food co-ops, alternative producers, parallel currencies and local exchange systems they found more than 70 substantive projects and hundreds of smaller initiatives ranging from squats to carpools to free kindergartens. To mainstream economics such things seem barely to qualify as economic activity – but that’s the point. They exist because they trade, however haltingly and inefficiently, in the currency of postcapitalism: free time, networked activity and free stuff. It seems a meagre and unofficial and even dangerous thing from which to craft an entire alternative to a global system, but so did money and credit in the age of Edward III.

I am not very familiar with the greek situation. Perhaps they can do better in creating a new system, especially if they can gain some isolation from the rest of the economy. But he is right that free time and stuff are only there because of capitalism, so you can't base an alternative system on that unless it's just a starting point for serious production. Money and credit helped capitalism in conjunction with industrial production of goods and services. If the production had continued to be feudal, we wouldn't have capitalism.

New forms of ownership, new forms of lending, new legal contracts: a whole business subculture has emerged over the past 10 years, which the media has dubbed the “sharing economy”. Buzzwords such as the “commons” and “peer-production” are thrown around, but few have bothered to ask what this development means for capitalism itself.

That is just fluff. Show me capitalists who share their rents and profits with those who produce them in a significant manner. "Few have bothered" because it doesn't mean much.

The result is that, in each upswing, we find a synthesis of automation, higher wages and higher-value consumption

He just said a few paragraphs up that real wages are falling. So this is contradictory. I totally disagree with "higher value consumption". Newer nowadays is usually shoddier, more expensive and dumbing down than older. But there is a Religion of Progress taboo about choosing older.

 Information is a machine for grinding the price of things lower and slashing the work time needed to support life on the planet. As a result, large parts of the business class have become neo-luddites. Faced with the possibility of creating gene-sequencing labs, they instead start coffee shops, nail bars and contract cleaning firms: the banking system, the planning system and late neoliberal culture reward above all the creator of low-value, long-hours jobs.
I don't know if the owners of coffee shops, etc are neo-luddites, or if they originate in the business class. I disagree that the reason for those kinds of businesses have to do with information making some work less necessary. The author seems to be totally clueless that work efficiency is not the only value human beings care about and that these other values might be motivating the coffee shops and other so-called neo-luddite enterprises.

We’re surrounded not just by intelligent machines but by a new layer of reality centred on information. Consider an airliner: a computer flies it; it has been designed, stress-tested and “virtually manufactured” millions of times; it is firing back real-time information to its manufacturers. On board are people squinting at screens connected, in some lucky countries, to the internet.
Seen from the ground it is the same white metal bird as in the James Bond era. But it is now both an intelligent machine and a node on a network. It has an information content and is adding “information value” as well as physical value to the world. On a packed business flight, when everyone’s peering at Excel or Powerpoint, the passenger cabin is best understood as an information factory.

He is again betraying his ROP values: human flight reduced to information processing is considered progress. What about the joy of flight that the Wright Brothers and other originators of aviation understood?
Yet information is abundant. Information goods are freely replicable. Once a thing is made, it can be copied/pasted infinitely. A music track or the giant database you use to build an airliner has a production cost; but its cost of reproduction falls towards zero. Therefore, if the normal price mechanism of capitalism prevails over time, its price will fall towards zero, too.
This is a delusion brought about by using up several million years of stored sunlight in a few hundred years. Prices will go up as petroleum dwindles, and as we start paying the true cost of earth care.

For the past 25 years economics has been wrestling with this problem: all mainstream economics proceeds from a condition of scarcity, yet the most dynamic force in our modern world is abundant and, as hippy genius Stewart Brand once put it, “wants to be free”.

Information is obviously one of the gods of ROP, with a will of its own. People want to be free, not information.

In the “Fragment” Marx imagines an economy in which the main role of machines is to produce, and the main role of people is to supervise them. He was clear that, in such an economy, the main productive force would be information. The productive power of such machines as the automated cotton-spinning machine, the telegraph and the steam locomotive did not depend on the amount of labour it took to produce them but on the state of social knowledge. Organisation and knowledge, in other words, made a bigger contribution to productive power than the work of making and running the machines.

But he forgot about petroleum and coal:http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2009/05/end-of-information-age.html and

We are surrounded by machines that cost nothing and could, if we wanted them to, last forever.

He is working himself into a religious frenzy here. From my value system I see it as neither possible nor desireable. I like to work and interact directly with the physical and natural world. I do not like factories or efficient offices (unless I only spend a small amount of time in them). I like to work in a garden, to mess with mechanical and electric hardware, to cook, to heal with touch, as well as do computations (which involve my mind first and the computer second) and communicate, but if I only did the last two I would go nuts.

As with virtual manufacturing, in the transition to postcapitalism the work done at the design stage can reduce mistakes in the implementation stage. And the design of the postcapitalist world, as with software, can be modular. Different people can work on it in different places, at different speeds, with relative autonomy from each other. If I could summon one thing into existence for free it would be a global institution that modelled capitalism correctly: an open source model of the whole economy; official, grey and black. Every experiment run through it would enrich it; it would be open source and with as many datapoints as the most complex climate models.

This is my favorite part of the article, because I want this too. But why not start small, as in Sim Village, so we have a chance in hell of modeling it (and the necessary isolation to make it happen)?

All readings of human history have to allow for the possibility of a negative outcome. It haunts us in the zombie movie, the disaster movie, in the post-apocalytic wasteland of films such as The Road or Elysium. But why should we not form a picture of the ideal life, built out of abundant information, non-hierarchical work and the dissociation of work from wages?

Because the world is not ideal, in the sense of having to conform to our wishes, and any attempt to ignore trade-offs (like between work efficiency and work satisfaction or between work efficiency and community) and other things we don't like (like the internet's dependence on petroleum) leads to dystopias. I am all for figuring out ways of dissociating work from wages. Umm wait, didn't the medieval economy already figure that one out yet? Oh it must be worthless since it's not (bow down) INNOVATION. Nothing from the past could possibly be of value accoring to ROP.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Inner spiritual work vs systemic solutions

The world is composed of systems. In the natural world, organic molecules assemble themselves into cells, cells assemble themselves into colonies, organs and organisms, and sometimes organisms assemble themselves into super-organisms, also known as hives, colonies, flocks. Species assemble themselves into the ecosystem we call the earth and some call Gaia to emphasize its systemic nature.

In the social human world, humans have cultures, which consist of the following parts, each one a system in its own right: economic systems, political systems, religious systems and technological systems.

What makes these systems more than the sum or their parts? It isn't just interactions. There are many non-living physical systems of interacting parts such as crystals, fluids, gases, sand dunes, etc. Living systems are special because they try to maintain and perpetuate themselves. There is not necessarily a consciousness of this goal from the parts. In living systems, the kinds of interactions, and the sheer number of them produce negative feedbacks, whose effect is system maintenance, or positive feedbacks whose effect is system collapse. Most of the time only negative feedbacks operate. Not only are these feedbacks operating within a specific system, but there are feedbacks between the system and the environment, which is itself a larger system. Negative feedbacks discourage certain part behaviors that lead away from system stability, and encourage part behaviors that lead toward system stability. These can be codified into laws, but also internalized into cultural norms and biological instincts, that are upheld by other both internal and external feedbacks. People who talk about humans destroying the earth or Near Term Extinction fail to take Gaia's negative feedbacks into account.

Social systems also are holographic because inside each individual part is a map of the whole system. This map may not be accurate, but the external system tries, through feedbacks to correct the map of individuals, not just their actions.

Though historically systems emerge from parts in a way that enhances the stability, happiness or fitness of the parts, the situation can change to one in which some or many of the parts are not stable, happy or fit. The needs of the system and parts, though they may have been aligned at one point, are no longer so. There are then 3 choices if the parts want to be happier: change the parts (inner system), change the outer system, or construct an alternative outer and inner system. Let's discuss each of these in turn.

The first option of changing the inner system comes in two variants. The first one is a belief that changing the inner system to one that is more resonant with the needs of the individual will magically lead to actions by individuals which will change the outer system. Despite historical data to the contrary, the belief is that the "good/enlightened" landlord, slaveowner or money lender will somehow lead to rent, slavery or usury becoming human-happiness-enhancing institutions that encourage altruism, generosity and reciprocity. This belief is shared among many self-labeled spiritual people who believe that the problems of humanity can all be solved by "inner work". This is mostly prevalent with Christianity, Buddhism and the New Age movement. Neither Jesus nor Buddha believed in inner spiritual work as a panacea. Jesus advocated a gift economy, an alternative to Empire* which he called "The Kingdom of God", and opposed usury. Buddha opposed the caste system and initiated a social system without caste. Most new age leaders do however believe that the outer system either will magically change due to inner work, or that it doesn't need to. The latter view is also shared by many psychologists, therapists and social workers who are an example of the second variant of the "inner work is sufficient" viewpoint. The idea is to conform, in Borg-like fashion, but this ignores the fact that the individual system has its own needs and no pretending or behavioral conformity will change those needs.

From a systems theory viewpoint, there is SOME usefulness to inner work, due to the holographic nature of human social systems. Changing the inner map is a motivator to aligning the outer system with the inner map, but oftentimes the alignment happens in the direction of the outer system, not the inner map. The outer system is bigger and more powerful than the inner, individual one. The parts are made to conform to the design of the outer system, not the other way around. Jesus got killed and Christianity adapted itself to Empire, and Buddhism has spawned oppressive institutions as well as being oppressed itself in places like Tibet.

If changing the inner system is not sufficient in changing the outer one, it seems reasonable to attempt to change the outer one to conform better to the needs of some or most of the individual parts. This is what policy makers, economists and some social scientists have tried to do. But this does not work either. The study of speciation in biology and the emergence of new cultures in social systems shows that the kinds of changes of old systems of sufficient size that are possible over several human lifetimes are not the kind that lead to more resonance with individual needs. Those kinds of changes either take very long times or else the old system collapses due to positive feedbacks, and there is nothing better to fill the vacuum. Barring these, creating a new system with a large measure of isolation from the old is the only strategy that has both an empirical and theoretical basis to succeed. One way to create isolation is to simply isolate a group and let evolution proceed. But again, this can be a lengthy process. A quicker strategy is to create the isolation not geographically but through changing a few so-called master genes or memes that isolate the new species in gene and/or meme fitness space. The need to create a new system rather than changing the old one was recognized by Mahatma Gandhi and Bucky Fuller. Karl Popper criticized a straw man of this approach, that of trying to naively change all the genes or memes of the system, instead of the key, regulatory "master" ones.

What master memes do I think have a chance of success in creating a new system that works better for most people? Here are 3:
Personalism, discussed in the previous entry of this blog: http://culturalspeciation.blogspot.com/2015/10/maurins-personalism-and-its-shadow.html.

Greenbeard social technology, which I will discuss next time.

And Ostrom Principles, which I will discuss after that.

I propose to start a research and development institute to research how to implement these memes, and also how they have been implemented in the past.

* Empire with a capital E, is used here to mean the master meme which puts domination and control at the top of a values hierarchy. The Roman empire, the British empire and the American empire are but instantiations of Empire, opposed respectively by Jesus, Gandhi and MLK, who were all Personalists. World domination requires complex burocratic, economic and political systems, with lots of middlemen to collect fees, money and centralized means of production as a tool of control, and draconian governments as a backup. Apologists for Empire say they want to promote peace, trade and the public good. It is not a small elite that has internalized this meme. Everyone participating in the current system has internalized it to various degrees, and the feedbacks for conformity are not just internal, but prevalent in every part of the meme network, including economics, politics, technology, social interaction, architecture, art and academia.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Maurin's Personalism and its Shadow

In the early 1930s, Peter Maurin introduced "Personalism" to the US, a precursor to the Localism movement, with historical roots in the writings of Emmanuel Mounier and others before him. This was in response to what he saw was the problem with both global Capitalism and World Marxism/Socialism. In the language of this blog and opinion of its author, Maurin identified a "master meme", which lies at the root of most of the other problems facing our society (it's only gotten worse since Maurin's time with institutions such as governments and corporations only getting larger and more impersonal) such as anemic or absent community, environmental destruction, institutional corruption, gross economic inequality, political impotence and work alienation/productive dis-empowerment.

With Maurin's seed and Dorothy Day's leadership, the Catholic Worker was born. The economic part of the idea was to personalize the services given by impersonal institutions, especially ones serving prisoners, homeless and destitute people. Maurin wanted to take it to the next stage, to personalizing goods and education as well, with village-scale production in what he called "agronomic universities", and saw it as the key to a better world not just for the poor (which were as significant part of the US population then) but for most everyone. But the implementation hasn't happened much, for various reasons some of which will be discussed here, and the CW is still (with a few exceptions) stuck in the first stage of Maurin's vision.

There is much overlap between Personalism and Localism because proximity is conducive to personal relations, whereas distance and intermediation are not. It is possible to imagine being personal with people far away with phones, Facebook and other communication technology, but it is easier to be close with someone emotionally when one is also closer geographically and one has a life to share rather than just communicate about life (which is a part of life, but hopefully not the whole thing). The small degree of personalism that isolated, alienated people can have with communication technology is not compensating for the impersonalism of the rest of their lives, reinforced through the technology they use for other things than communication, and the intermediation they experience through all other aspects of life. So we can safely assume that Personalism implies localism, perhaps with a few trade relations over longer distances (Localism on the other hand, only implies Personalism in conjuction with a few humanist values. Many Localist tribal peoples were only friendly to their tribe and hateful to everyone else).

Other Personalists, who were also Localists, such as Jesus, Wendell Berry, M. Gandhi and J.C. Kumarappa had basically the same idea and knew (based on historical evidence) that care for/symbiosis with nature, intimate community and more edifying work would all follow from local production and consumption, but so far the depersonalizing trend of the global industrial economy hasn't been opposed much in practice. It is my intention to speculate on why that might be so in this essay.

One possible reason is systemic--the current economic system discourages personalism and rewards impersonalism. There is more money to be made in mass production and mass distribution: costs are cheaper per widget and markets are bigger that way. Also, intermediation--the process whereby trolls/middlemen can insert themselves (and extract a toll) between a producer and a consumer-- is a way to employ more people in the current mass production and distribution economy, and it must somehow contribute to higher cost efficiency. The current system encourages sociopaths who seek power, to rise to positions of power and domination because they can do so more easily than people who care personally about others, who see them not just as objects to dominate.

But I think there is a more individual, interesting and personal reason for discouraging personalism, a dark side, a cost to personalism that is frightening and many choose to bury it rather than look at it, in classical Jungian shadow fashion. I list the shadows of Personalism, followed by what shining light on them might look like for a few examples below.

Personalism in economics/work:
Shadow: Egos can get bruised if other people don't appreciate your contribution in a personal way. Less scary if this happens in impersonal way, through market intermediates, when unknown people just don't buy your product. Or if someone outcompetes you in a personal way it hurts more than when your company gets outcompeted by another company, whose people you don't know.

We don't need to be responsible for our house and land because our landlord is, in some fashion which is mostly about extracting the most energy out of us and the land, a parasitic instead of symbiotic relationship. We get some energy back, but not nearly as much as how much the landlord gets from us. Neither of us sees each other as a person, more as a tool or an enemy. The institution of Rent gets between the tenant and landlord, making it easy to not face the parasitism. It is similar to a mafia protection racket, or a slavery system. Neither the mafia Don, the slave-owner or the landlord would extract so much energy from a person, such as (sometimes but not always) a member of their family. Nor would the "protected" person, slave or tenant see the landlord as an abstract bad guy if they had to deal with them personally.

As mentioned above, the system encourages sociopaths, those who care about power over people more than empathizing with people. But the personal part of this, the shadow part is that all of us have this drive for power within us, but for most it is scary to look at and acknowledge. It is safer for this drive to be buried, though it comes out at work, in the bedroom, and in addictions. In a way, the sociopaths are the most honest about it.

Light: In a village setting, people need to be able to look inward and ask themselves how they can improve their product or service when other people are dissatisfied with it, or when someone else does better. Instead of just competing, they can try to learn from and cooperate with that person.

We share land and sometimes housing, and at the very least we take care of them and each other. We need each other in concrete ways, so we help each other symbiotically.

We explore power dynamics through drama, conscious BDSM (I don't have much experience with this, but base my understanding on some of the writings of Anne Rice), etc with our close family and community.

Personalism in sexuality:
Shadow:  Islam and other patriarchal cultures deal with the unpredictable force of female appeal to males by covering the reproductive age females' faces or keeping them separate from males in some fashion, getting them quickly married, and making them subservient to their husbands. In the west we deal with it by getting the young people to interact mostly through impersonal phones and internet sites, then getting them married, then having the married men in an emotional chastity belt that only includes their wives and keeping the sex limited to the couple and pornographic-assisted fantasy. The wives on the other hand are able to have emotional intimacy with other women and sometimes unmarried men without instability. But there is a cost, where the buried sexuality comes out as violence towards any number of scapegoats. Isolated shootings or bombings are minor compared to whole nations lashing out as in fascist Germany or Japan.

Light: There are other models that are starting to surface outside the monogamy box. There are scary abandonment issues that can be buried with monogamy, and they resurface more quickly once that layer of protection is removed.

Personalism in art and entertainment, in communication:
Shadow: We do not know the artists whose art we consume, generally. We do not have much plays anymore with people who we might interact with. We have movies. We do not go to movies together much anymore but watch them on our personal computers, usually alone. We do not generally go to a public park or cafe to interact with people anymore. Most people are on their computers or smart phones, interacting through those.The cell phone with its transient text has made it easy to completely blow people off, something that was harder with voice or even email, where the messages would persist indefinitely. It is a level of intermediation and de-personalization that makes interaction less scary and dangerous than person to person interaction. All this is possible by the de-personalizing effect of intermediation and the global market.

Light: We make art and/or we buy/trade art from our friends and neighbors. We put on plays together with them. We make films and watch them together. We dance and play music together, and the subject and tone integrates with the rest of our lives in personal ways, not just the lives of dead people who did have personalism, such as eastern European peasants or Irish bards from long ago. Personalism is what gives life to art.

Personalism in relating to nature:
Shadow: We understand Anthropogenic Climate change intellectually, but are powerless to change our lives to do anything significant about it. We are addicted to a way of life that pollutes, destroys rainforests, mountaintops and species, that consumes as much petroleum as possible. The consequences of our actions are indirect and abstract, the feedbacks take a long time to propagate back to us. We might enjoy nature as a hobby, but we are not intimately dependent on it.
Light:  We make our living from the land we live on. Our inputs come from the land or neighboring land, and our outputs go to the land or neighboring land. We see our neighbors doing the same. Hurting the land and the other creatures on it hurts us in direct ways.

Personalism in Death:
Shadow: We do not grieve much with the memories of the recently dead and our close friends and family. We try to forget and we pay others to handle the body and the ritual. We numb ourselves with addictions.
Light: We bury our  own departed friends and neighbors and take time to grieve with our community.


Personalism is an attempt to acknowledge that there are systems at a higher level of organization than human beings, that are more than the sum of their parts, that have emergent properties. It suggests allowing natural systems such as nature (or some other creative Love/Intelligence greater than the sum of humanity if you're of a spiritual bent) to have primacy over human systems, and keep human-made systems small and personal.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

choose your value hierarchy, not your consumer products

The article in the Guardian:
growing food in the desert panacea about growing food in the desert as yet another triumph of Technology, neo-liberal Economics and the ever onward and upward March of Progress, presents an excellent illustration of several points I have been trying to make in this blog.

First of all, the title is very dramatic, but wait.. What food crisis? The same alarmist propaganda was used by the corporations (e.g. Monsanto) who brought us the “Green Revolution” and they have produced more problems than they have solved (soil depletion, addiction to petroleum, unexpected deleterious health effects, superweeds, putting family farms out of business, breaking up small farming communities etc). Sundrop seems to use the same strategy and same mentality to sell their product, with probably similar results.

There are people in certain parts of the third world (and arguably the first world with its obesity and diabetes “crisis”) who are malnourished, and this could possibly be called a crisis, but how is producing more food going to help them? The problem is not lack of food, there is an overabundance of food production. In the mainstream paradigm, there are distribution issues, but this is not addressed by Sundrop. Sundrop is most interested in making a profit at yuppie supermarkets and less in helping starving people in Africa. As most baby boomers, Sundrop's PR media would probably deny this and say they can have it all and not have to prioritize their values, but their behavior so far demonstrates otherwise and for good, game theoretic reason: in order to stay competitive in the global market, profit HAS to come first. But in order to create a better world, we need to try something different than the value hierarchy (with profit and convenience at the top) that have driven our society since the industrial revolution.

Perhaps Sundrop is proposing that there is a crisis in food production because most food is not organic?  But Sundrop isn't organic either, using artificially produced nutrients for their plants in a way that has not been tested extensively on human for long-term health effects.  Maybe they claim to be more sustainable than Cascadian Farms or other industrial organic farms? This needs to be shown. It is not true, as the author of the article claims, that they use virtually no fossil fuels. All their solar panels, desalination plant and GAS (fossil fuel!) backup generator all used fossil fuels in their construction, and their capital costs show it. These machines will need to be constantly maintained and updated with fossil fuel inputs. Greenhouse plastic is a petroleum byproduct and needs to be replaced every four years, probably sooner in the intense UV sunlight of the desert.  The many plastic pipes used in aquaponics suffer from the same shortcoming. Transporting the food to “billions”, as the article mentions, again uses fossil fuels. There are alternatives that avoid these unsustainable dependencies on fossil fuels, but they involve a new paradigm, which has been discussed in this blog before, which can be called radical re-localization.

Besides the by-definition-unsustainable (because it is finite, more than half gone, getting more difficult to extract and can't be replenished at quick enough rates) fossil fuel use in Sundrop's operation, there are other environmental costs which sundrop does not take on. This is the realm of environmental externalities—all the pollution in the manufacturing of the machines, materials and transport mentioned above. But that is just de rigueur in global capitalism. He who externalized costs most, wins, but as in all prisoner's dillemma games, society and the environmental commons lose.

Last, so far Sundrop has produced tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. These provide very little calories per pound of food and in order to provide a significant fraction of people's caloric (and nutritional in general) needs, many other crops would need to be grown in the hydroponic environment. My understanding is that this is not possible, only a few crops are amenable to the conditions of hydroponic culture. But this is no problem if you fall for the hype, so standard nowadays in this superficial culture of image over substance.

The article mentions a “difference in styles” (see values vs lifestyles for more insight into global capitalism's use and co-option of “lifestyle”) or a political difference between old/new labor (and Hurray for Corbyn for showing that old labor can be more pragmatic and win) as prime reasons why Patton and Saumweber have parted ways, but this is very superficial. I do not know Patton and Saumweber at all, but I am guessing there is a difference in paradigms between the two men, not in “lifestyles”. Patton comes from a tradition of british thinkers and doers who lived these values which includes Albert Howard, Alan Chadwick, Rob Hopkins and John Seymour. He values profit less than community, edifying work, individual autonomy and a mutualistic relationship with nature.  Saumweber does not seem to care about these 4 values at all, and certainly values profit more than any of them. To see why this is, let's look at each of these 4 values in turn, relating them to Sundrop's operation and Patton's life.

1. Community-- compare producing food for “billions” of people through an impersonal market with the click of a few buttons on a smart phone, with a local economic network (or many such networks) of hundreds of producers/consumers who each connect with many others in the network personally as suppliers and customers for each other,  and genuinely need each other. The first produces the alienation of the modern era which Marx first diagnosed and Wendell Berry made relevant to farming communities and the so-called “environmental crisis” in the US. The first focuses on mass production, which is the only way to make a profit in the global economy, the second on people as if they were more than animals to be fed in a trough en masse (“billions served”). Community is an organism with a soul, whose cells (the individual people) need to interact in complex ways, not just fed like cattle. Patton cares about keeping things small, local and personal, the fertile ground for community. His family is his main community, though I bet he is connected to others in a more personal way than Saumweber, the “king of the spreadsheet”.
2. Edifying work-for a few engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs the Sundrop operation might provide edifying work. But these you can count on your fingers. The rest of the “billions” now have nothing to do (structural unemployment) or bullshit work not worthy of human beings.
3. Individual autonomy—though this value is often traded off with community, in our global economy most people do not have very much of either autonomy or community. The wealthy have autonomy but everyone else is a slave to the global market and their life is highly constrained by laws, debts and institutions. After they pick a career or job, their only choices are consumer choices. This was not the promise of the industrial revolution, but it was its result. People were supposed to be freed of menial labor and replaced by machines. Though machines have proliferated, people's freedom has declined, either in active leisure or in work. Hundreds of farmers and craftspeople connected through their local market, work, leisure and products produces more individual freedom than billions of people connected through their computers, smart phones, spreadsheets, impersonal market and passive television.
4. Though Saumweber says he has “eco-values”, what he really means by this is that he sees the eco-movement as a profit-making market opportunity.. I have personally known people of his ilk. There is very little love of nature, not as a resource to be exploited and parasitized, but as a living being to exchange love and reciprocate energy with. The whole operation is about market  efficiency (profit/costs); the desert, highly controlled greenhouse environement and machines are so far removed from any deep eco-ethos as to be laughable.  Saumweber is about PR, which is about image, not substance or soul. To connect with nature one needs a soul, depth, substance. To make a lot of money one needs to sell one's soul, image, superficiality,

Monday, September 21, 2015

Co-opting Gandhi

Gandhi popularized the notion of visionaries living out their values as a strategy for achieving them. In this essay I will try to show that this is not always possible, nor is it always a good strategy. Success or attempt to carry out this strategy is looked out with the lens of "purity", and failure to carry out this strategy is seen in the popular mind as a failure of moral character with the label of hypocrisy. These are the flip sides of a strategy for controlling people,  common in religions that demand a certain code of ethics, with rewards for the compliant ("pure"), and punishments for the deviant ("hypocrites"). This is a good strategy for controlling people (and who or rather what is trying to do the controlling will be talked about later), but that was not Gandhi's intention.

It is useful to make a distinction between values that can be lived out easily in the present system, those that are very difficult and impractical to live out in the present system and those that can't be lived out at all in the present system, even if one desires to very much. Values are part of a wholistic system of memes, they are not independent. In a concentration camp, optimism is very difficult to live as a value because of all the other values and circumstances in that environment. Kindness is easier to practice but easier still in a Gandhian ashram. Honesty is not difficult to practice in a concentration camp but sometimes counterproductive when dealing with people who want to kill you, your family or your fellow inmates. These are all internal values and so they are always possible no matter what the external circumstances, though as we just saw there are environmental influences affecting their ease or the wisdom of their practice. With external values it may not be possible at all to live them in a particular system. For example, if someone values a pre-industrial technology, it is impossible to live that unless a whole bunch of people have built the infrastructure for that technology. Another example is if one values folk dances, which by definition require many people, it is impossible to dance them alone. We are all part of wholistic cultural, technological, economic and ecological systems and certain values are just not possible to live out in those systems (but possible in other systems), certain ones are counterproductive and certain ones are just very difficult and may not be worth it because they compromise other values.

Here is an example of the latter: the person who values honesty and lives in a concentration camp but lies to the guards about something that saves his son's life is being pragmatic. He can be called a hypocrite but that misses the mark completely. He values his son's life more than honesty (Dietrich Bonhoffer offers a similar example to illustrate the same point). When people think I am a hypocrite because I am not an environmental purist, they miss that I am not an environmentalist, I am a personalist (in Peter Maurin's sense of the word). I value community and edifying work for people sometimes more than love of nature, and I think (along with a long list of revolutionaries like Gandhi and Wendell Berry) that local technology and personalism would ensure all 3 and so that is what I am willing to give my life to, not some controlling ego-boosting game of adhering to people's preconceived one value of environmentalism. I drive cars, though in the system I am working towards there would probably be no cars, unless they are locally manufactured. That system requires hundreds of technological, craft and farming specialties and is not just about having or not having cars. Not driving cars in that system works. In this current system it doesn't very well.

The person who values optimism, freedom, kindness and life but loses hope, is highly constrained, not so friendly and sees death all around sometimes in that camp can also be called a hypocrite, but what if he just doesn't have the resources to be optimistic, free, kind and life-affirming in the face of daily horrors? He might be trying to escape and digging a tunnel so he can be in an environment where optimism and the other values above is easier. He might avoid getting shot by looking forlorn instead of being cheery. Calling him a hypocrite again misses the point that the issue is not one of some religious purity but of how to work towards values one desires given the present technological, economic and environmental system of memes and values.

The only possible useful negative meaning of hypocrisy is one where a person wants to be in an system conducive to certain values but is not working very hard towards that. The other meanings of not being in the system one desires just by choosing so are counterproductive and silly. Sometimes it is hard to tell. One might look at Al Gore and think he is not really making a difference as far as global warming but he might see his plane and car and mansion use as a strategy towards educating people by e.g. making that movie. If someone is not willing to make any sacrifices towards the values they want they are not working very hard towards achieving their values and the negative connotation of hypocrite is justified. If I thought that giving up the convenience of cars and airplanes and computers would promote a local technology and peronalism better than using them I would. As it is I make some sacrifices with my comfort and convenience such as living in a one room cabin, drinking rainwater, riding bicycles and walking, being beaten up by the legal system for starting an urban homesteading community, using very little electricity (mostly from sun), working as a farm hand and not having many colleagues to do physics with but I still use cars and computers. And most of all, I make hundreds of sacrifices a day with my values, every time I consume a product or service that is not traded personally, but that is gotten from the impersonal global market or work at a stupid, spirit-numbing job. Most people who have just adopted mainstream market values do not have to make such sacrifices.

The person who values non-industrial technology but is currently in an industrial ecosystem would not magically be in a non-industrial ecosystem if he just dropped industrial technology. Nor would he achieve it even if he single handedly tried to and had several lifetimes to do it. It is by its nature a mass action problem, not an individual action one. Even if hundreds of people got together with the purpose of creating a non-industrial, craft and agrarian based technology and economy, if they don't use power tools, cars and electricity for that purpose, they get alot of "purity" points, but don't end up accomplishing their goal because they are struggling just to survive, and the system tries through negative feedbacks, as all complex systems do, to maintain itself by either beating them up for not conforming or offering them hard-to-resist rewards for complying.  Time is of the essence in order not to slide back into the memetic (negative) fitness valley of the status quo. If we're working towards achieving a non-industrial, craft and agrarian based system, we would do better to use computers, the internet, money and cars than just dropping all these.  I've plotted a hypothetical cartoon illustrating the two paradigms of "purity" and utilitarian below, contrasting in each the two strategies of Gandhian vs utilitarian (using the tools of the prison to get out of prison).

In the first paradigm, the people who eschew much of industrial technology are clearly being more "pure" than the ones who use it, at least at first (but both have the same goal of creating a non-industrial system).  Eventually, if the utilitarian strategy is able to keep on track and not lose sight of its goal, it is able to create an alternative technology which eschews industrial technology, and achieves a larger measure of "purity".

In the second paradigm, we are measuring "good done", or harm avoided in the two strategies. The graph exagerates the good done by the gandhian approach so it will stay visible. The approach is a drop in the ocean, not just because only a few people are doing it, but because unless they are able to produce a non-industrial production system they are still totally dependent on industrial production, despite their reduced consumption. Also, by not having a complete system of non-industrial production, they are not benefiting from the good that comes with varied, edifying, connective work. The utilitarian approach starts out slow and at first not much good is being done, but at some critical point, a non-industrial local technology is built, and good done increases as more people see the benefit of such a system.

Purity Paradigm, two strategies


Utilitarian Paradigm, two strategies

The current global market industrial economy wants us to believe that we can choose everything. We can't. We can choose what products to consume and how to make money to buy them and that is why the global market is pushing this agenda of rational individual actors, because it is good for its self-maintenance, it promotes more consumption and more people playing the game of making money. Gandhi did not have this intention when he came up with "Be the Change", but Empire co-opted his intention (as it is prone to do with almost any alternative, especially ones that are a threat, e.g. Christianity) and used religious memes to facilitate this co-option. Another way of saying this is it shames people into being good consumers by calling them hypocrites if they propose a different system, while still participating to whatever extent in the current system. The same strategy was used to control people into Empire's version of Christianity.

Gandhi meant to propose a model of change in which individuals were seeds for change at a higher level of organization, rather than merely complaining about the discrepancy between the envisioned system and the present system. By trying to live some of the values one aspires to, a creative tension is produced that can inspire other people as well as oneself. But the seed approach is not restricted to individuals. A cell can't inspire other cells or individuals or societies, an individual can so that is the lowest level of organization for seeds of social change. But a small group that achieves coherence and is able to form an autopoeitic resonance can also inspire change at a higher level. The activation energy for a group is greater than for an individual, but so is the amount of work that can be done. I have been trying for a while to find that group that would be a seed but I have not quite succeeded yet. That does not make me a hypocrite--it is not wholly within my control.

The other thing I think Gandhi was pointing at was that certain values are not subject to a utilitarian calculus, such as doing direct violence against another person (except in self defense). Only in theory can such violence decrease total harm. In practice it does not.

We can choose to work towards values other than market values but that does not mean we drop everything and just live them, as I have tried to show in this essay. Gandhi certainly did not do that: he used planes and cars though he was a luddite, he provoked violence though he was a pacifist, and there are probably other examples. Let us be inspired by his example and not misuse it.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Lifestyles for sale vs passionate values

I've been trying to figure out why the word “lifestyle” has been annoying me. First of all, the word has been invented by marketers in order to sell products, following the increase in production of goods brought about by industrialization. You don't just sell a product, but a “lifestyle” that gets associated with the product. The term is used in both the psychological characterization of individuals and their overt consumer behavior (marketing lifestyle.) This is useful for marketers, but it is a problem for people who choose to live a certain way because of values other than market values, or for people who live a certain way out of necessity.

To understand why it is a problem, we need to understand how values motivate people and how some of these values might be different from market values. What are market values?
  1. There is efficiency which translates to price and sometimes less labor or environmental impact.
  2. There is individual choice in consumption, which makes all choices equal before the market The hate mongering skinhead lifestyle is just as valid as the creative and loving Christian monk lifestyle as far as the market is concerned., as long as both can be used to sell products. The environmentally destructive lifestyle is just as valid as the environmentally responsible lifestyle. This market value is a combination of individual freedom and equality (the first two values of the french revolution), but note only as far as consumption is concerned.
  3. There is appealing to basic drives for status, power, security and sex, which translates to projecting an image unto people and having them project an image through their consumption choices. These values are easier to use for selling purposes, compared to critical thinking, sharing resources, community level production, loving interactions, or ego-transcendence for example.

Most people who try to live according to deeply held beliefs that they have spent a lifetime thinking about and trying to imploement, share the first two values and sometimes even the third to some extent but they have other values that they value more strongly than these three. For example, amish people value community, simplicity and edifying work more. They're not anti-tractor because they are against efficiency, but because they see that the tractor destroys community and edifying work and they are willing to trade off some efficiency for these two values. Certain back-to-the-landers value life and ecology more. I value personal loving interaction, nature connection, intellectual freedom and craft-based production more. What matters with values is how they fit in a hierarchy, which ones are more or less important and which ones can be traded off for others. I don't hate efficiency, just don't value it as much as the other values I mentioned.

The global market though tries to impose its own values hierarchy (the 3 above are most important) and discount all other values relative to these 3. Any other values are just instrumental in figuring out what and how to sell to consumers. After analyzing consumer choices and psychological states, it projects images of “lifestyles”  in advertising. It pretends to care about ecology by selling certain products that are supposed to be more “eco-friendly”, but it really just cares first about selling those products, and only second about the ecology part. It is very insidious in this way, coopting any other values and putting them to the service of market values.

For those who have sacrificed comfort, wealth, status and other values for the values they are passionate about, equality with trivial choices such as what color is your house, what clothes or other consumer goods you buy is disrespectful. No, not every choice is equal to every other choice, just because it is equal as far as the market is concerned. Value choices have consequences that go beyond the market. One choice can lead to depth, community, nature connection and edifying work, whereas another can lead to shallowness, alienation from people and nature and ridiculous work that is a waste of human potential.

Herbert Marcuse noticed long ago that capitalism, like all other systems/games complex enough to try to maintain themselves, attempts to coopt any other system/game and resigned himself to this with a "resistance is futile" attitude. George Soros complains about how market values have taken over all other human values, but suggested no remedy. What would happen if a few of us just stopped (gradually, in order to make it practical) playing the game of buying things from the global economy, and instead created an anti-global-market, pro-local-market religion (the technological infrastructure would need to be created for this, see previous posts:massive online collaboration game and luddite manhattan project) where people would vow to only trade with people they know personally, not with institutions or impersonal markets? How would global capitalism respond to coopt that?

Besides marketers, young people also have an interest in lifestyle. Many young people try to join an existing lifestyle (that was mostly created or coopted by marketers) as a way to gain an identity and belonging. Some of them (I have personal experience of this) think that their parents love them or not based on this consumer-philosophy-based choice. But parental bonds are stronger than market values. Also, though most of the time nowadays both parents and children adhere to the same market values, some parents hope that their children can be loving, deep and thoughtful, transcending market values, though they usually do not base their love on the fullfilment of this hope.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

cultural ruts in theory and in practice

It is clear to many people that our culture has gotten itself into a rut, yet it is hard for most to imagine ways of getting out of this rut. They think of doing one or a few things that make no difference at all (except to their conscience) or actually make things worse. My claim is that this is just the nature of genetic or memetic ruts: all directions lead uphill, at least initially. That is what a species or a culture is: a peak in fitness space, or a valley/rut in negative fitness space. It is separated from another species or culture by a mountainpass, which is the best place to get to the other valley—all other paths require more energy, more suffering and less fitness. The direction which leads to the mountain pass is a change in a combination of tens or hundreds of memes or genes. But the properties of complex networks require that only one of these memes or genes (the so called master or regulatory meme or gene) needs to be changed initially, the other ones follow in a hierarchical fashion. In biological speciation, to ensure stable transmission of the change in the master gene, it needs to be mutated. An epigenetic change would be unstable. But with cultures and memes all changes are epigenetic.

Cultures are more akin to breeds/varieties as the mountain passes connecting them are not as high as they are between species. I propose that species are more akin to civilizations with different paradigms, as both of these have such high mountain passes (between them and the mother species/civilization) that information flow is virtually negligible and they are much more stable than breeds/varieties/cultures. The stability comes from the nature of the fitness (or its heuristic counterpart known as happiness) function: all directions away from the current peak lead downhill (or in uphill if you look at negative fitness instead). Memes, unlike genes, can't be hardwired, but the fact that attempted changes usually cause pain has a similar effect to hardwiring—stability (proportional the the depth of the rut). On the other hand, we are capable of changing them at will, and if we pick the right ones (the master memes), we can get out of a cultural rut with minimal pain.

One problem is that the memetic landscape and its associated fitness function are distributed among all the individuals of the mother and nascent cultures. One individual is not usually sufficient for changing the expression of the master meme--it takes many people acting in concert. Gandhi advocated the seed approach where one individual inspires others and the expression of the master meme thus grows. This doesn't always work, it didn't work for Gandhi in establishing a village-based economy in India for example. Another approach for increasing the expression of the master meme is the Black Panther "use the tools of the prison to get out of prison", tools such as the internet, money and actual products of the industrial global economy.  But this is a topic for another time.

What I'd like to do now is make concrete the abstract way I've talked about memetic landscapes here and in the past. One important point is that what gets selected for in one negative fitness valley is not necessarily the same as in another valley. The highly networked genes that give rise to an organism and a species, and the highly networked memes that give rise to an individual and a culture make most changes to only a few genes or a few memes at a time highly disadvantageous, which is why most people either can't imagine changes that would make a difference (they need to look at many changes in a wholistic way, not just one or a few), or get frustrated when they attempt one or a few changes.

Let's look at a culture that values local production/consumption of goods more than global production/consumption and compare it to a culture where these values are reversed. Here local production is hypothesized to be a master meme, in that many memes are affected by it and that just changing from global to local production gets one from one negative fitness valley into another one. Though an initial explicit isolation from the mainstream culture helps the nascent culture avoid being out-competed (local production is only more advantageous in a local production environment), or swamped by drift of memes from the mainstream culture, there are costs to explicit isolation. Implicit isolation, brought about by the depth of the negative valley fitness (or the height of the mountain pass) has less costs but takes time to establish. How much initial explicit isolation is necessary is an empirical question: Cutting off or reduction in media input should be beneficial for memetic isolation, but it might also have costs, such as reduced ability to recruit people. Cutting off or reducing technological or financial inputs can also be beneficial for memetic isolation, but it can have costs such as less energy available for building the new culture. We need to do many experiments to find out the explicit initial isolation sweet spot. But at least we recognize the importance of isolation, in contrast with the liberal humanist meme of global village which has a knee jerk reaction against isolation.

Memes from different cultures still mix with each other if the fitness barriers are not too high.  Not only do memes from one civilization not mix with ones from the other (because of the high fitness cost of changing them one or a few at a time, with the exception of the master meme), but people from one civilization have no desire to mix either memes (intellectual/emotional intercourse) or genes (sexual intercourse) with the other culture. This is already happening even for varieties/breeds/cultures, which can be seen as small valleys separated by small mountain passes, within one larger scale valley. For example liberals and conservatives are such memetic breeds, separated from each other by a small, not too high, mountain pass. But they are both totally entrenched in the big valley of Empire which uses global industrial production as its main tool.

Here are the differences between the valley of global production and local production, which create memetic isolation between the people involved.

In the local culture, people take care of the nature around them. Not out of altruism or environmentalism, but out of self-preservation.

People do not have much time for psychotherapy and do not value it monetarily more than farming or any other task necessary for survival. People belong to a natural place, a family and a community, people have meaningful work that connects them to these, and this makes them mentally and emotionally healthier than people in the mother culture who lack these relationships. Therapy becomes as absurd as for a gorilla in their natural habitat, a villager in a pre-industrial setting, or a hunter-gatherer. Addictions become less prevalent as people's real needs for belonging, connection to nature and meaningful work are satisfied. Therapy is like an addiction in that it is trying to satisfy a deep need with the wrong means. It works very temporarily and creates a dependency that ultimately disempowers the patient, like alcohol, and other drugs.

People eat meat because they need the concentrated protein and are not able to grow as many soy beans as with industrial agriculture. Veganism works in middle class urban global culture, but is absurd in a local agrarian, craft based culture.

People do not have pets stay and especially sleep indoors because that could give them fleas, ticks and poison oak or ivy. In a global culture where cities are possible, pets can stay indoors all the time or go in the yard where such pests mentioned above have been exterminated

People do not need to go away very often because they value providing for their cultural needs locally. Also they mostly do not have fossil fuels to power vehicles and horses are more expensive to feed and maintain over long distances, especially if they are carrying loads beyond their rider.

People mostly engage in work that provides for their basic needs, not work that provides foo foo luxuries mostly for the rich. I see so much energy spent by people scrambling to get basic goods from the global economy by making fancy chocolate, offering yoga, massage, psychotherapy, financial services, expensive crafts. They could probably spend less energy by taking care of each other's basic needs, producing goods to meet those basic needs and providing basic services and have energy left over for some of the fancier things that they can't afford in the global economy.

In the local culture, people communicate with their families and neighbors face to face, not via Facebook or email. If they need to communicate with people further away, they use “snail” mail, or rather pigeon mail or horse mail. If they need to compute they use their brains, paper and pen. If they need to be social they dance together or sing or play music or listen to other people playing music. If they need intellectual fellowship they get together to discuss ideas. If they need artistic stimulation they get together to share stories, put on plays and teach each other various artistic skills.