What is the most destructive invention in human history?
Aeroplanes? Nuclear power? Oil derricks?
They have all lead to incalculable environmental damage, not to mention applications in war.
Maybe we could go back further, maybe the invention of swords and guns is the most destructive thing we ever created, there is very little I can think of that led us down a more destructive road than that.
Except one thing.
What if the most destructive thing we ever created wasn’t a weapon at all? What if it was an idea? And not even necessarily a bad idea, but rather an idea we implemented without fully understanding the consequences.
Moreover what if it wasn’t even a fully formed idea, but merely the slight variation of an already existing, perfectly harmless one?
I think there is a case to be made that the most destructive thing humanity ever did, was change our accepted idea of what an economy is, from a principle about resource sharing, to a demand for profit.
It sounds so small and benign. But I think that tiny little ethics shift unleashed so much horror onto the world that it is the reason we face existential danger today.
But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Economies have existed for as long as civilisations have, but the idea of an economy existing for profit is a relatively new invention. Economies were invented to facilitate resource sharing, if you are working on a farm all day, you don’t have time to go and bake all day, and if you are baking all day, you don’t have time to make pottery, and if you make pottery all day… you get the idea.
Economies were created to ensure that everyone shared in the collective resources of their community, so that no one went without. If you were lucky your community ended the season with a surplus of something that could be sold to your neighbouring community for a nice little bonus.
The overriding point however was simple, the economy existed to serve society, society did not exist to serve the economy.
But somewhere along the way, this idea started to go horribly, horribly wrong. The idea of immense profit and limitless wealth may have been a dream in the eyes of some, but it took the invention of colonialism and the industrial revolution to make it happen. The combination of plundered natural resources from around the world, and the production capability of slavery and industrialised production gave birth to capitalism.
And the world has not seen peace or stability since.
Not only has the world become more de-stabilised in the past 200 years, than the rest of human history combined, but we now face existential danger from our own economic systems.
The planet will die under capitalism, our society will divide and fall under capitalism, The weight of massive wealth inequality, and the insatiable hungry for profit, will see all natural resources and environments become extinguished.
To put it simply, if we don’t end capitalism, then capitalism will end us.
So that is really that, capitalism must end. Soon.
This of course presents us with an obvious question, what do we replace it with?
Well despite the endlessly nauseating public discourse, that our only choices are some weird binary of extremism, between dead-eyed capitalist apathy, and totalitarian, brutal subsistence living under Stalinist communism…
There are in fact many solutions to our sustainable economy problem, and since civilisations have managed to have functional economies without capitalism for approximately all of human history, there is no reason to believe that we cannot dig ourselves out of this mess if only we find the will to do so.
The key word here is sustainability, we must move away from a profit driven economy back to a resource sharing economy, that does not mean however that we cannot upgrade our thinking to incorporate some of the newest and most advanced economic theories to get there.
Since we don’t really have a choice anyway, why not take this opportunity to fundamentally rethink our entire concept of how an economy should function.
A great transitional starting point, for example, is Firewall Economics. This is the concept that nothing which is essential to the preservation and safety of life should be run for profit. So for example, hospitals, infrastructure, housing, groceries, utilities etc… are all run by government or non-government organisations, to ensure that service delivery is the first and only priority.
Now this is of course only a half-measure and it still technically operates under capitalism, since any industry that isn’t ‘essential’ can still be run for endless profit growth. However, this system is a fantastic first step because it can be implemented almost immediately, and it cuts away a lot of the most harmful aspects of capitalism quickly.
If capitalism is the bleeding wound of the world, then Firewall Economics is like a tourniquet for saving our planet’s life.
The next most sensible economic reform to implement is aspects of Participatory Economics. This is the idea that a workplace should be run in a universally democratic manner, from rotation of roles to democratic policy decisions, to the equal share of profits. There is a lot to like about this system because it completely reimagines all the traditionally harmful views of work and production.
It gives every employee equal power, responsibility, and reward, not only is this the fairest way to run a workplace it is also the most inclusive, most empowering, and most responsible.
It transforms the workplace from a centre of profit generation for capitalists, into a community, where those that spend their time, effort and labour working it, are rewarded fairly for it, not just monetarily but with a sense of purpose and inclusion.
This complete mental dynamic shift would be a massive change from the root of many of capitalism’s core problems and remove the aspect of selfish capital gain completely. A bonus to this system is if every workplace transition to this system, then a lot of bonus effects start happening to the economy as a whole.
For example, if every work place is holding mostly consistent, average salaries, then the entire country’s tax laws can be overhauled for simplicity and fairness, creating a much more stable economy as a whole as well as making budget planning considerably easier and more accurate to predict.
It also means that resource sharing and product delivery can be more accurately prepared. There is no need to recklessly strip mine the earth resources if we know precisely what is needed to run the economy and where the resources already exist.
At this point our economy has already undergone significant philosophical change, and the destructive forces of capitalism have been mostly negated.
But all these ideas so far have been about immediate changes, what about planning for the long term?
What could we do to ensure an advanced, sustainable economy that can meet not just the needs of society today, but the needs of our future?
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is already well under way. Automation, machine learning, and advanced construction techniques like 3D printing, already exist and are becoming more advanced every year. Yet our social planning around this revolution still anchors itself in economic theories that are hundreds of years old.
But is the day fast approaching when our society should no longer be built around jobs? What happens when the technology becomes so advanced and dependable that it can hopelessly out preform any human worker? These may sound like hypothetical questions, but they need answers soon, and they need policy and social reform built to accommodate them.
We already have ideas like Universal Basic Income, is this an inevitability as the next 100 years see the total automation of most, if not all, workplaces?
I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I do know that the questions themselves will not resolve themselves, and as we face some of the greatest crises in human history, so too are we presented now with some of its greatest opportunities to build a better world.
The ideas we have looked at today are just some of the potential choices we have as an alternative to capitalism, but there are dozens of practical and realistic economic models we could implement.
We have alternatives, we have options, we have choices. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
We don’t have to keep destroying the planet just to give like 8 people the GDP of entire continents every financial year.
We can do better. Much better. And we must.
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