March 24: “The Hierarchy and the Network” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
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We live and move and have our being in an economic system founded upon the assumption of scarcity. From an early age, whether we are privileged or oppressed, we are given to understand that everything necessary for human survival and thriving is always in short supply, and that our life project is to compete successfully against others to assure that our own needs will get met. The system of industrial market capitalism assumes that in order to get us to do our share of the world’s work, people must be motivated by fear of not having enough, and by greed to possess ever more of the world’s finite wealth. The essential truth of this view appears intuitive, and yet our ideas of what constitutes scarcity are relative, and changeable.
Between the adoption of double entry bookkeeping by the trade cities of Italy at the time of the Renaissance, to the invention of the steam engine and the rise of the Industrial Revolution, western Europe underwent a dramatic transformation from a feudal, land-based economy to an industrial market capitalism that would help to create the modern world. That transition would take centuries to spread across the globe, accompanied always by social disruption and the resistance of existing powers, and often with violence and trauma in the form of colonialism. The new economy replaced the oppressions of feudalism with different systems of oppression, founded less in the authority of tradition than in the idolatry of efficiency. While there may be much to deplore in the impact of capitalism, particularly on the natural environment and the well-being of the planet, it also summoned a flurry of technical innovation that has transformed the expectations of ordinary human lives over the course of the past five centuries.
That innovation has altered the calculus of human survival as a function of human labor, and made most of the world profoundly interdependent. I love a home-grown tomato as much as anyone, and that one single peach that the tree in my back yard produced last summer was utterly delicious, but I could not begin to meet my own entire nutritional needs with the edible things that I grow for myself. Rather, I rely on an intricate network of growers, transporters, and sellers to supply my food, so that I may focus on this weird ministry thing that I do. A capitalist economy assumes that I am exchanging my labor — in writing this sermon, for instance — for a wage, which I then exchange for the products of other peoples’ labor. The traditional critique of this system is that it sees all human beings as strictly rational and ultimately selfish individuals, struggling to survive in a universe of scarce resources and endless competition. Analysts like Karl Marx reasoned that such a system was inherently oppressive and thus unsustainable; they looked for workers to unite, and revolt against private ownership of the means of production. But that expectation supposes that onerous, unwilling human labor is always a necessary element of the production process. What happens, as Marx asked himself in those early hours of February, 1858, if you have an ‘ideal machine,’ that lasts forever and costs nothing?
Visionary as he was, Marx could not have anticipated how closely the rise of information technology at the opening of the 21st century would come to resemble the qualities of his hypothetical ‘ideal machine.’ In 2015, however, the economic journalist and commentator Paul Mason published a book in which he made that connection, and suggested that we may be living at the front edge of the next global economic restructuring. Just as humanity once moved from the agricultural to the industrial age, we may be seeing the start of the information age. Just as acres of farmland once diminished in importance next to factories and coal, there may come an era when the crucial resource is access to all the accumulated data of human knowledge – an access made possible for everyone by computers and satellite technology, at a trivial cost in either energy or labor. If Marx was right, the existence of that access would, as he said, ‘blow capitalism sky-high.’
And it would do that, Mason suggests, without the historical necessity of the worker’s revolution that Marx more clearly predicted. Let me invite you to consider three seemingly unrelated phenomena that appear to me point in this direction. The first is a very live issue for the practical operation of this congregation – the ways in which we are organized to receive money. (Speaking of which, please, please say nice things to your canvass caller when you hear from them presently, and get your responses in so they don’t have to chase you down in order to complete their work!) But here’s the thing: our office knows how to handle cash, and we know how to cash checks. Over the past several years, we have gotten better at taking credit cards for purchases, and we can manage automatic deductions from your bank account for pledge payments. But we are only now working out how to take credit card based automatic deductions. Personally, I know that it has been months since I paid cash for anything, and I only write checks to pay random bills, and here. I am old school enough that I generally use credit cards, but I am aware that this is a generational artifact. We are working on how All Souls can get paid through Venmo and similar phone aps, because we know that for many younger adults, that is how money works. Here’s the point: in this economy, money consists of information. I don’t have a pile of gold coins in a vault, like the cartoon Scrooge McDuck rejoices in. I have lines of computer code at the bank, lines of computer code in a mutual fund, lines of computer code at American Express. “Money” isn’t an object anymore; it’s pure data.
Second thing: The industrial revolution replaced subsistence human labor with the power of engines, and vastly increased the productive capacity of workers. It didn’t happen instantly, and it didn’t happen evenly over society, but some of the early beneficiaries of the ability to get more accomplished by fewer people were children. The notion that people who are not yet adults are required to contribute to the drudgery of the world as soon as they are physically capable is a given of feudal economies. When parents can produce enough for the family to thrive without the labor of pre-teens, those children tend to be released from labor for longer periods of education and play. At some point it becomes possible to release people who have become infirm with age also. The way most of us understand the world today, ‘child labor’ is an abhorrent idea; something to be prohibited by law. We completely detach the value of a child as a human being from their productive or wage-earning capacity, and consider that to be a moral value. We know how this is done; we could do it for people other than children.
Third thing: As an introvert, I actually like self-checkout lanes. It always troubles me to watch someone else doing a tedious job on my behalf that I am perfectly capable of doing for myself, while I stand there watching. Back in the day, when a representative of the establishment had to know something about prices, make accurate change, and handle money honestly, human attention was required. For those who like to feel waited upon by another person, the attention of a check out clerk may still feel like value added in the purchasing process. But it does not make sense to me to preserve a grueling and needless task just so that someone can be paid to do it. In the 18th century, the ability of machines to weave fabric vastly increased the amount of cloth that could be produced by a given amount of human effort, and this was resisted by traditional weavers, who naturally, and accurately, feared that the demand for their services would diminish. Yet the quantity and quality of cloth available to the average person increased dramatically, and the need for millions of hours of tedious labor disappeared.
Paul Mason proposes that “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.” In other words, the capacity of the computer/robot alliance to release human beings from repetitive, non-creative tasks has not been anywhere near fully realized. Not because we haven’t figured out how to make it happen technically, but because we aren’t sure how to deal with the loss of structure in our cultural identity. What would it mean to our self-understanding if it were possible to release all people from labors of production in the same way that we now assume that children and the elderly should be released? What if the world were so abundant in the necessities of sustenance that there no longer had to be a trade off between unwilling, ungratifying work, and survival?
The capitalism we are used to is founded in part upon a moral equation, that ties the worth of adults and the meaning of their lives to their productiveness. The transition to a ‘post-capitalist’ economy, Mason posits, will entail ‘the dissociation of work from wages.’ I don’t know how true that may turn out to be, but I know that the concept is hard to wrap my mind around. And yet, I observe in my own experience some suggestive evidences. Mason writes, “The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the hierarchy and the network: between old forms of society molded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next.”
This notion reminds me of the Free Hot Soup folks here in our own city; a loosely organized, on-line community that invites anyone to prepare soups, sandwiches, beverages, fruit and other snacks to share with people experiencing homelessness or food insecurity. They gather in different public parks on designated days with whoever shows up, to distribute whatever food arrives – sometimes more than is needed, sometimes less. Many of you may remember that they made the news last fall when the KC health department tried to destroy the food at one of their gatherings by pouring bleach on it, ostensibly because it had not been prepared in certified kitchens. This is a perfect example of the network vs. the hierarchy, or the inflexibility of the capitalist model in the face of a whole different kind of economic thinking. The function of the Free Hot Soup network begins from an assumption of abundance – there are people who have food, who want to help, and there are people who are hungry. The crucial ingredient is the information to connect them, which is where the ‘ideal machine’ of the internet comes in. And this is the really interesting part: no money changes hands; it is not a function of the market as traditionally understood. Yet what does happen is that community starts to be built – among those who organize themselves to bring the food; among those who come to avail themselves of it, as they spread the word to each other about where the meet ups are, and bring extras back to the people they know who weren’t able to come that day; and between the providers and those in need, as they begin to recognize each other, greet and thank and embrace each other, share jokes and hopes, and even worry about each other. Can we imagine what kind of a world we would build if the measure of a transaction was not how much money it made, or how good a deal you got, but rather, how much human connection it created? I mean it, seriously – can we begin to imagine that, as a whole new kind of economy?
Paul Mason says that it is starting to happen, right under our noses, in the cracks and crevices of the industrial/capitalist model that never was infinitely sustainable. Like every other major transition in human history, it is going to have painful aspects, and meet resistance, and be driven by external forces. Some historians speculate that it was the impact of the bubonic plague – the Black Death that swept across Europe and killed a third of the population – that made labor valuable enough that innovations in efficiency were welcomed and sought after in place of time-honored traditional ways, and gave rise to the changes that eventuated in the industrial revolution. The growing planetary climate crisis of our time may be just such another externality, that forces our global village – traumatically, perhaps — into new patterns of connection, consumption, work and wealth, and meaning-making. Call it socialism if that pleases you, but I wonder if it isn’t more profound even than that.
Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, once famously said that “Information wants to be free.” It is an interesting ambiguity of the English language whether this implies that information wants to be available without cost, or that it wants to be unconstrained in its wide distribution. Either way, the anthropomorphism captures something of how public access to the whole of accumulated human knowledge through the internet approaches the concept that Marx was exploring in his speculation about the ‘ideal machine.’ It presents us, I think, with an unavoidably spiritual question, which is this: How do we arrive at a value for something that is deeply important, but in no way scarce? The response of the existing industrial market system is the attempt to keep everything, including information, ‘private, commercial, and scarce.’ Yet if Mason is correct that Marx was correct, this is a rear-guard action, doomed to fail in the long run. Capitalism can be blown sky high by the paradox of abundance as well as by the miseries of scarcity – perhaps even more readily in the end. Elsewhere in his article, Mason writes, “If I am right, the logical focus for supporters of post-capitalism is to build alternatives within the system, and to direct all actions towards the transition – not to the defense of random elements of the old system.”
I have rarely in my life met a person who didn’t want to do some kind of demanding work; to create art, or teach children, or cure cancer, or build skyscrapers, or set an Olympic record, or share music, or explore the stars. Many folks give up their dream in order to do something tedious that will pay them a living wage in an industrial economy; maybe you did, too. If it were indeed within our grasp to outsource the drudgery to the machines, would we have the audacity and the vision to build an economic system that was not founded upon the challenges and values of scarcity, but rather on information that everyone has access to? If not, it seems to me that the failure of imagination is in us. Once upon a time, slavery, and hunger, and early death appeared as immutable aspects of the human condition, but we have learned over millennia that they can be overcome, if we are steadfast in our purpose.
“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?” enquires Paul Mason. “Is it utopian, to believe we’re on the verge of an evolution beyond capitalism? Why do we find it so hard to imagine economic freedom?” It seems to me that this is part of our work as a faith tradition: to form that picture, to imagine that freedom; to assert the worth of all people apart from their productivity; to proclaim the value of that which is not scarce. None of us knows, of course, just what the future holds. It is possible that the impact of industrial capitalism on the planet has already been lethal beyond repair. But if not; if we can still mend the damage and sort out some kind of mutuality with the earth, you know we are going to have to get over this greed/scarcity idea. The network is growing every day more relevant and more powerful than the hierarchy, despite the inevitable and necessary resistance. With the entire wealth of human experience, data, reason, and imagination at our fingertips, we ought to be able to begin to comprehend abundance. All that is our life depends upon it.