Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Living on the commons

In my earlier blog posts, I have demonstrated the problems with the consumer capitalist system. Namely, that everyone in it must enter into monetary relations where one alienatingly functions alternately as a john or a prostitute, where wealth inequality increases as the rentiers get richer and the renters get poorer, and where the planet gets wrecked - all in a wash of pro-consumer propaganda that leaves little room for imagination. In this blog, I'll work through a thought experiment to investigate alternative ways of being.

in the book the Republic by Plato, Socrates asks some people he meets to give a definition of justice. Socrates in turn finds weaknesses in the various definitions and refutes them. Next, Thrasymachus provides a definition of justice as "Justice is what the powerful say justice is, so as to advantage themselves". Socrates stumbles and can't refute this. Socrates also can't come up with a better alternative definition, so he spends the rest of the Republic describing an ideal society that is just to its core on the basis of its design.

So while today, the exorbitantly wealthy neoliberal proponents with their ability to influence governments may be taking Thrasymachus' definition of justice to heart and molding a society that suits them, let's see through their unequal consumer-capitalist world to a truly a just society. Let's look at society where collaboration rather than competition determines relations, the obsession with jobs dropped, the delusion of exponential growth on a finite planet given up, and where equality and harmony with nature are highly valued.

When examining societies, a key feature to look for is the technologies used. Technologies in our modern neoliberal have two key features: They are on a scale that is outside the control of an individual or small group and require massive bureaucratic organization requiring a rigid division of labour to produce, and they are unsustainable and deleterious to the planet. A just and harmonious society cannot have such technologies. All technologies in the new society must be able to be created, repaired, and run by the individual members of the society or in small groups or guilds, the way cottage industries were at the start of the industrial revolution.

The technologies available for the new society are therefore much reduced from the present system. To avoid excessive labour, the number of technologies should be kept at a minimum. To select the technologies to be used, the fundamental needs of the society should be examined. For example, food, clothing, and basic medical supplies such as disinfectant. Food technologies would be basic, seed saving, basic farming implements, organic growing techniques focusing on encouraging beneficial insects to inhabit the area to eliminate pesticide requirements, and recycling nutrients to replenish the soil. As for clothing, the growing of flax, cotton, or raising wool in an ecological sustainable way, and extracting, refining, and weaving all with technologies that can be made by the community itself, such as a wooden loom. I'll examine making disinfectant as a special case.

The creation of a chemical plant would require a large capital investment, an army of unemployed looking for work, human resource department, bosses, a regimented education system focusing on job skills rather than human flourishing, lots of time spent apart from family, mind-numbing 24-hour shift work to keep the plant running to justify the investment and enrich the investors, marketing, and long-distance distribution. As all of the above are inimical to a just and harmonious society, something smaller scale must be considered. After reviewing the list of antiseptics and their production methods and raw materials, it appears ethanol may be the best option, so let's examine how to make it on a human scale, as an example of analyzing and selecting a reasonable technology.

There are likely several methods of chemically synthesizing ethanol, but the method of fermenting grains and distilling the result is best for a small-scale production. The grains used can be barley, oats, wheat, potatoes, or sugar beets. Critically, the starches in the grains must be cooked and saccharified by an amylaze enzyme. The enzyme can come from malted barley. Malting barley can be done on a small scale without the need of experts, following techniques developed during medieval times. The malted barely then used for the fermentation of an all-barley mash, or it is mixed in with another cooked grain, for instance potatoes, and left for a while so that the enzymes from the malted barley can act on the potatoes. The next step in the fermentation is the addition of yeast. In mass society, one would buy a yeast packet from a store. This seemingly simple act however includes a huge chain of labour and social relations based upon capitalist values that we are trying to avoid. So how could a society not using money get yeast? The answer is not so simple. Wild yeast could be collected from the air, but it would likely be contaminated with mold and bacteria. Even if the society could start off with a single packet of commercial yeast* it would be a challenge to maintain the strain as there would be no refrigeration. Storing some of the yeast dormant in a cool underground area, and culturing it out into many glass jars of nutrient solution would be feasible with a bit of practice. Back to the process - after the mash has been treated with the malt enzymes, some yeast is mixed in and a few days later the result is ready to be distilled. An airlock would be useful to prevent contamination during the latter stages of the fermentation. This could be made from glass - which requires an entire glass making process. You are probably wondering what the mash was cooked in and what it was fermented it. Cooking pots and banded wooden barrels require metal. Extracting ores (not usually located right near the surface of the earth) and refining them in a blast furnace, then shaping the metal is no small task. This in itself would require the efforts of a substantial number of people, but it could be done by worker organization without bosses or capitalist investors. The metal producing worker collective would need to be initially self-sufficient in their basic needs of food and clothing, and would then be free from financial pressures to exchange their advanced products without needing to resort to marketing schemes. The next required technology is the still, usually made of copper, requiring at least bronze age production techniques. Finally glass would be the ideal storage medium to avoid evaporation of the alcohol. 

The preceding example of alcohol production shows that technologies are interrelated and rely upon each other. The point to be emphasized is that the limitation of technology is that most technologies cannot be generated by people freely working under their own direction without coercion. Technologies whereby people do not become the tools of their tools (such as where constant maintenance is required) are best, therefore there is a limitation against technologies requiring huge investments with long-term payouts that benefit a monied minority who don't do the actual work.

In my next post, I'll look at ways to reform the consumer-capitalist system to make it more liveable, in contrast to this post, which examines a way to escape entirely away from the system and start anew. For example, setting up a communal house in a neighbourhood where all food preparation would take place, so as to obviate the need for grocery stores or restaurants. The communal house would save food preparation labour, reduce food waste, and spare people from work at grocery stores and restaurants, where much of the time is spent waiting around doing nothing.

*The new society would not be starting ex nihilo, and even though it would have the goal of being self-sufficient and not dependent on the remnants of the capitalist world, it would initially collect a set of useful items and tools

Saturday, 3 December 2016

The Battle of the Rent Collectors

Much press coverage has been given to Uber lately. Uber positions itself as a revolutionary way for people to get rides, but it is little different from the existing taxi service. The real difference, is that those benefiting from the work of the drivers will not be the existing taxi services, but the Uber investors.

There are two types of people in society. The rent collectors (the rentier class), and the workers, who generate and pay the rents to the rentiers. Many people are a mixture of both, rent collector and worker, for example someone who rents out their basement but works full time for a company not owned by themselves. Rents can come in the form of rental fees, taxes, royalty payments, and several other forms.

In the case of the taxi service, the taxi companies consist of the rentier owners, who collect a portion of the fares in licensing and franchise fees, and the taxi drivers, who are the workers. From the position of Uber, they saw the rents being paid to the rentier taxi company owners, and thought "Hey, how can we cut in on their action? How can we collect those rents instead? " The answer: the Uber car service, which collects 20% of the fare paid as rent.

The desire of the rentier class to increase the amount of rent they are paid (or the desire of more and more workers to leave the working class and enter the rentier class), is a major cause of increasing wealth inequality in society. As the working class must pay more rents, it gets poorer, and the rentier class gets wealthier. This is exacerbated by the fact that the more money one has the more rent one can collect (by acquiring more properties or investments). Thus, the flow of money cycling up the rentier class will only accelerate over time.

One way to break or slow the cycle is for the government to tax the rentiers at much higher (more progressive) rate than the workers. However, the rentiers are experts at putting aside a portion of their money into a pool to form think tanks and lobby groups to influence the politicians to not increase taxes on them. The rentiers also have excellent techniques for protecting their money from government taxation, through offshore accounts, and tax-code loopholes.

Another way to break the cycle of wealth inequality is the get rid of the rentier class completely. I do not advocate the Bolshevik method of 'eliminating' of the rentier class, but rather by appropriating their wealth and distributing it equally. For example, if a rentier owns 6 homes in a city, 5 they do not live in could be taken and assigned to families needing housing (see note 1). Excess of two cars, and excess of other possessions would be redistributed.

In the case of companies (such as factories) owned by the rentiers, they could be converted to worker-owned co-operatives. There hasn't been a lot of research done on the subject, but I believe that worker-owned co-ops would be less likely to produce poisonous or toxic substances, or to excessively pollute the planet in manufacturing their goods.

As the rent collectors battle it out amongst themselves to see who can collect the most rents, they may soon find the whole rent collection system flying out the window.

1. As for how to distribute the appropriated homes, the best way is that (in the case the home was being rented out) would be to give the home to the current tenants. The currents tenants would then become owners, and the money they previously paid as rent would go straight to property taxes and repairs, rather than through the landlord who was really just an unnecessary intermediary. Entire apartment buildings would be divided up into individual family owned units. As for the special case of people who live in the only home they own or have a mortgage on, but rent out their basement to help pay that mortgage, those owners would be given full title to their home from the bank. As all banks would be left without any mortgage payments coming in (the banks are completely in on the rentier game), the inflated bubble economy would be collapsing around this time, and people would likely need their basements as places to do handicraft work and would be free to have their tenants move out if they so decided. The tenants who had to leave the basement suites would be given priority on the unoccupied homes appropriated from the owners of multiple homes who were not renting out the extra homes they owned.

Letter on Transhumanism (The parable of the dying chief)

One day an indigenous chief lay dying in his tepee. He was surrounded by his friends and family. His armor and weapons sat in the corner. His horse paced about ruefully outside. His beautiful daughters and strong sons all wept and commended him for the greatness he had brought to their tribe. They recounted how he had led the tribe in a successful defenses against countless invasions of enemy tribes. They gave him approbation for the many fair and just decisions he had given on difficult matters between members of the tribe. They thanked him for keeping the many gods and spirits in favour by encouraging living harmoniously with nature. The medicine man wafted the smoke of a bundle of white sage over the chief and he drew his few remaining breathes.

Suddenly, the chief bolted up in bed. He sat fully upright, looking about in a panic. "Oh no!" he cried, "I can't die just yet! What a waste my life has been! All this time, riding about on my war horse, talking to people, raising children. What I should have been doing all this time is researching medicines and technologies that will keep me living forever! If only I'd spent hours and hours staring into microscope, creating pharmaceuticals. If only I'd done countless scientific experiments on animals, including vivisection, to develop surgical procedures that could extend my life!"

"But great father!" his family interrupted, "You have a lived a great a full life, you have accomplished so much in your years on this earth." 

"No!" he retorted, "I never got to spend hours and hours staring into a small screen, being amused at the flashing pictures. I never got to immerse myself in the fictional life of a set of characters on the screen. I only could live my own life directly, never vicariously. Furthermore, I never took the time to mass up large amounts of material possessions. I only had the things I needed for day to day life. I never got to pore through catalogs and shop in malls for things that I could imagine increasing my sense of self if only I owned them. I never took a vacation to Paris. What an unfulfilling waste it's all been! Oh won't someone freeze my body in liquid nitrogen in hopes of a future cure, or at least transfer my consciousness into a computer?"

The chief's family was left speechless. The chief fell back down onto the bed. He was dead. "What sort of evil demon was that which possessed him in his final moments?" they asked.