[The following is an edited transcript of the podcast RevolutionZ’s 230th episode. It is from RevolutionZ’s unscripted Ruminations series, but it is also about something I’m very familiar with because in this episode I discussed not all differences among all allies, but just some differences among some advocates of participatory economics. Regular listeners to RevolutionZ are familiar with the participatory economic vision but for others, while I here try to avoid assuming background knowledge, some of what appears below may be, well, unfamiliar.]
Participatory economics is a vision for a post-capitalist economy. It features a productive commons, workers and consumers self managing councils, jobs balanced for empowerment, equitable remuneration, and participatory planning. But beyond these core agreements, as of June 2023, what differences among themselves do participatory economy’s advocates have?
Differences About Jobs
Participatory economy’s advocates broadly that we should reject the division of labor not only typical in capitalism but also typical in what has been called twentieth century socialism. That familiar corporate division of labor gives about twenty percent of the workforce empowering tasks and the remaining eighty percent disempowering tasks. The empowered managers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc., who we call the coordinator class, control day-to-day operations because they monopolize the information, skills, and access necessary for decision making. In contrast, the disempowered assemblers, cleaners, drivers, etc., who we call the working class, do tasks that fragment and reduce rather than enhance their skills. Their daily activities separate them from the information and access essential for making decisions. The empowered coordinator class commands the disempowered working class.
To remove that coordinator/worker hierarchy, everybody in a good economy needs to be able and even eager to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. To achieve that prerequisite condition, each person in each workplace needs to do a job which has a comparable empowerment effect to all other jobs in that workplace. Participatory economy’s advocates agree that there won’t be only one right way for workplaces to arrange their balanced jobs. Different workplaces with different conditions, means, and preferences will likely adopt different procedures to arrive at their own balanced job complexes.
So what differences do advocates of balanced jobs have with one another? To balance within workplaces means everyone in each workplace has a job comparable in its empowerment effects to everyone else’s job in that workplace. But what if across workplaces there remain very large differences in empowerment?
For example, imagine that eighty percent of the workforce winds up in a subset of workplaces that have only highly disempowering tasks. And imagine twenty percent of the workforce winds up in workplaces that have only highly empowering tasks. In other words, what if an “empowerment hierarchy” doesn’t exist inside each workplace because everyone has a balanced job for their own workplace, but still exists in the economy as a whole, due to imbalances between workplaces? What if a fifth of employees are empowered and four fifths are disempowered because we’ve sequestered all the empowering work into some workplaces and all the disempowering work into others? We’d still have unbalanced jobs, but now between workplaces.
You might ask, “well, okay, but how could you possibly do that without screwing up the economy? Who would make decisions in workplaces with balanced jobs that are only disempowering? Such workplaces would have no one capable and inclined to make its needed decisions. Nothing would get done.”
Imagine you farm out a workplace’s empowering tasks. For example a vehicle workplace contracts with a managerial firm, an accounting firm, an engineering firm and others as needed to take care of decision making and managing the vehicle plant and other empowering tasks. No matter where you are in that restructured vehicle plant its balanced jobs are only disempowering. Imagine for another workplace, say a publishing house or accounting firm, you farm out the disempowering tasks. The editors and accountants remain, but you farm out the custodial, secretarial, and other disempowering tasks to disempowering firms. No matter where you are in the renovated publishing house, its balanced jobs are only highly empowering.
Some advocates of participatory economics feel that that scenario can lead to a class divided workforce despite having balanced jobs inside each workplace. Those advocates’ want to balance jobs not only in each workplace but also across workplaces. They feel that people in a highly empowered workplace would need to spend some time in a disempowering workplace. Similarly, they feel people in a disempowering workplace would have to spend some time elsewhere doing various tasks that are empowering.
The point is, if you think imbalances between workplaces would lead to a coordinator/worker class division, then despite its added complications, to achieve classlessness you will want to balance across as well as within workplaces. On the other hand, you might think that the hassle of having people work in more than one place will outweigh what you consider the negligible possibility of a class division emerging if you only balance within workplaces.
My own view is that I favor balancing across as well as within workplaces. I think that seeking to balance for empowerment only within workplaces would guarantee retention of a disempowered and an empowered sector of the workforce, and thus a class division.
Differences About Remuneration
Advocates of participatory economics reject providing income for property, power, or even output. They tend to agree, instead, that work should receive income for how long, how intensely, and under what conditions it produces socially valued output. They favor the ethical and incentive implications of this approach and call it equitable remuneration. Society wants us to work usefully and not just lolly gag around calling it work. It wants us to do needed socially onerous tasks. It wants us to work the duration that will produce the amount of output society collectively wants for consumption. In turn, duration, intensity, and onerousness are factors for which remuneration can impact what we do. But within each workplace, how do workers determine how to distribute the total income the workplace has available so that each worker receives an appropriate amount for the duration, intensity, and onerousness of their socially valued work? Once there is agreement about that as a norm, advocates understand that each workplace will collectively decide its own procedures which will undoubtedly differ somewhat from what other workplaces decide due to different circumstances and preferences in different workplaces.
In other words, inside each workplace there isn’t only one correct way to fulfill a norm such as remunerating for only duration, intensity, and onerousness. With that norm, the economy needs an overarching mechanism to decide that workplace A and workplace B are afforded an amount of income to disperse among their workforces that accords with each workplace’s overall duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work. But then how closely and by what methods each workplace chooses to keep internal track of differences in duration, intensity, and onerousness of its member workers, and by what procedures each workplace then apportions its total allotted income will likely differ in different workplaces because of their different products, processes, and preferences. For example, I might prefer a workplace where the assessment of duration, intensity, and onerousness is relatively relaxed. You might prefer a workplace where that assessment is quite precise so that differences in income are more refined. I may think that getting high precision is not worth the time and effort that goes into it. I may want to work in a workplace, for example, where we choose to have an average income, an above average income 5% higher, a super income 10% higher, and then also an income 5% below average and another 10% below average. You may instead prefer to have many more gradations of as little as 2% or even 1%. In any case, the idea is that just as with balanced job complexes, there’s an overall aim or norm that’s agreed for all workplaces, and then features that are contextually different because different workplaces have different conditions and preferences.
But what non contextual remuneration difference exist among participatory economy’s advocates? It turns out that some advocates favor a completely different norm than remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness. Some people who in all other respects advocate participatory economics and who even like participatory remuneration vastly more than remuneration for property, power, or output would say, “wait a minute, there’s something still better than that.” And the thing that they would say Is better is the time-honored norm “from each according to ability to each according to need.” And while I think all advocates of participatory economics would agree that there’s something very nice about the intent of “from each according to ability to each according to need,” I think many advocates of equitable remuneration would add that taken as a literal guide for income “from each to each” has some very serious flaws. And while I’m not going to go through all those in full detail, the reasoning is relatively simple.
If you get what you say you need, why don’t you just say you need more and more and more? Why don’t you ask for everything that will make you more fulfilled, more satisfied with your circumstances, and more able to develop your abilities? If you like astronomy, why don’t you want a backyard observatory? If you like skating, why don’t you want a backyard ice skating rink? If you like travel, why not an endless trip around the world? The reason is “from each to each” assumes you want to be responsible and you know such requests would be greedy and irresponsible. Not everybody can have so much. But advocates of the duration, intensity, and onerousness norm wonder what will reveal to you what is too greedy and what is responsible.
With the “from each to each” norm in place, the economy will say to you, take what you need, but it won’t say, that much is too much, or, for that matter, that much is too little. And the same goes for work. How do you know how much is responsible to produce? You are in a workplace with 50 (or 500) co-workers. Why should you produce more or less? How long should you work? How hard should you work? Should you do the onerous things or just slough them off at the expense of output? You don’t know what is responsible. Suppose your ability would allow you to work 80 hours a week. In that case, should you work 80 hours a week just because that’s your ability? No, of course not. There is a societal amount to work that is responsible in light of the amount of desire there is in society for the outputs of production as compared to the desire there is in society for leisure time. There is a personal amount to work for you in light of your desire for income as compared to for leisure. But “from each to each” doesn’t reveal that total amount for society, nor does it tell me what my share of that total ought to be.
A second related problem is how does the economy know in what direction to make innovations? Where should we invest? Do we want to enlarge our capacity to make one item or some other item? Where is the feedback in this approach that distinguishes pursuing X and pursuing Y? The needs approach doesn’t tell us how much people want X as compared to how much people want Y, because to get what you need and you to give what you are capable of doesn’t reveal any gradation of needs or desires. It doesn’t tell us where we should invest to create new capacity.
As for myself, I like certain desires behind from “each according to ability to each according to need,” in particular, that the economy should collectively provide full income for those who are unable to work fully, and should likewise meet special needs for free medical care, day care, etc. In other words people shouldn’t get short changed, receiving less than they need due to not being able to work. Likewise, people shouldn’t get over worked, being pushed harder than they are able. The problem is the norm doesn’t provide information needed for desirable allocation. So while I think that we can positively fulfill the “from each to each” virtues by way of equitable remuneration, I also think we would seriously violate economic viability if to fulfill those virtues we opted for the “from each to each” norm.
Differences Regarding Allocation
The agreement regarding allocation among advocates of participatory economics is first off that we don’t want markets and we don’t want central planning because we feel that by what markets and central planning cause people to do and by the way they arrive at outcomes, both markets and central planning deny self-management and violate the ecology. More, like the corporate division of labor, they elevate an empowered coordinator class over a disempowered working class. How do they do these things? Well, that’s a much longer discussion, but let’s settle here on noting that there is that level of agreement among advocates of participatory economics.
The next step for such advocates is, okay, if we’re not going to have markets or central planning, what are we going to have? Pretty much every advocate of participatory economics agrees that we should have self managing workers and consumers councils develop, refine, and make decisions regarding work and consumption. But how?
Participatory economy’s advocates all want workers and consumers to cooperatively arrive at a plan regarding what’s produced and what’s consumed. They want the plan’s procedures to facilitate the accurate valuation of all items so allocation decisions properly reflect people’s true preferences regarding personal, social, and environmental effects. More, participatory economy’s advocates agree all of this will require a new mechanism, and that the mechanism advocates propose is called participatory planning. Workers’ councils make proposals. Consumers individually and as councils make proposals. The workers councils see what consumers have collectively proposed for consumption. The consumers councils see what producers have collectively proposed for production. There follows another round of proposals, where in each new round, or iteration, workers and consumers offer and respond to revised proposals. Iterations continue until there is an agreed plan. The prices of items evolve until they accurately represent the full personal, social, and ecological costs and benefits of the production and consumption of the items in question. Amounts offered by producers come into accord with amounts sought by consumers. But if that much is agreed, what differences exist?
First, as in the case of balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration, there are differences about additional contextually contingent features that will be incorporated in any real implementation participatory planning. So, for instance, one extra thing to incorporate is how to assess and handle the implications of environmental externalities. For example, a workplace that’s generating pollution needs to be charged for that so there’s a reason for it to either cut back its pollution because it’s doing damage that is worse than its benefits, or to continue with the pollution because the benefits outweigh the damage. To decide, we need a mechanism for ascertaining the correct valuation of the pollution. More, we also need such a measure so that the people who are hurt by the pollution can be properly compensated. Another element to add is how to determine investment. Society needs to set aside and then utilize a certain amount of its productive potential not for immediate consumption, but for the maintenance of the system and the development of new ways of operating in the future. Society might, for example, want to invest to reduce the amount of onerous labor, or to save certain resources, or to explore Mars. There are also details of the basic planning iterations themselves and of the communication of information during those iterations as well as of additional structures that economies may need to facilitate people getting new jobs, or changing where they live, and so on.
So what differences exist that aren’t about filling out the model with contingent details that may quite reasonably vary in different implementations? In the case of the division of labor, this is like settling on do we or don’t we balance across workplaces as compared to flexibly incorporating various instances of contingent details such as how each workplace approaches balancing their own jobs. And in the case of remuneration, it is like do we have as our norm equitable remuneration or do we have “from each according to ability and to each according to need,” as compared to how each workplace then contingently implements an agreed norm.
I think one such potentially important allocation difference is about “qualitative information.” To what extent should we incorporate mechanisms in participatory planning that allow for the communication of qualitative information as compared to communicating just information about degree of desires to consume or produce some item? To what extent should we have means for producers and consumers to access the actual characteristics of why consumers desire some output or not, and why workers want to produce some output or not?
In other words, do we want qualitative information from consumers and producers to not only enter into the determination of valuations by way of their collective impact on particular councils’ overall proposals, but to also be more specified, conveyed, and accessible to other councils? Advocates of participatory planning’s difference about this hinges on views of the relative benefits versus the relative costs of having more qualitative information available. To elicit, accumulate, and convey qualitative information would involve some time and steps. If you think that would introduce a considerable burden for little gain, you will oppose it. If you think that having the qualitative information available would introduce a considerable gain with little burden, then you will favor it.
My own view is that qualitative information is not endlessly important and should not be imposed when it isn’t needed, but that having mechanisms that gather qualitative information and that allow workers and consumers to choose to access it will enhance people’s capacity for empathy and solidarity, and also guard against prices deviating from what are really true social and ecological costs and benefits.
Differences Regarding Emphases
Next, what about differences regarding how advocates present the vision? When anyone presents an economic vision, or for that matter, a political, kinship, ecology or, say, more narrowly an education or sports vision, what do we want to convey? A difference regarding presenting the vision—and I think there are gradations of this among advocates of participatory economics—is whether you should present a full picture that is rich in its components of what you hope to attain so you try to provide answers to as many questions as you can come up with? Or should you present a kind of a core map or scaffold that leaves out contingent features? Should you present, that is, a detailed comprehensive map of all features or just a core map of only essential features?
While no advocate of participatory economics is at what we might call either extreme regarding what to present, some advocates provide more detail and deemphasize the extent to which much of what they present is contextually contingent. Other advocates emphasize the essential core elements but don’t go much into what they always make perfectly clear is contingent content. For the latter approach, the core or scaffold to which contingent features will necessarily be appended in future practice are the elements that are considered essential for the full economy to wind up with self-management, solidarity, diversity, equity, classlessness and ecological sanity. You present core features that are in your view essential to winding up where you aim, and you acknowledge that there are many more contingent aspects that will depend on future experiences and preferences. For example, inside each workplace, there are contingent details regarding how to arrive at balanced jobs so choices will often differ in different workplaces precisely because different workplaces have different attributes. The same holds for dispersing equitable income to each actor in different workplaces, and perhaps for exactly how much qualitative information is collected and made accessible during planning.
The point is that this type difference can yield different ways of talking about and presenting the vision. At the extremes, one might reach far into suggesting or implying that things are essential when they aren’t, or one might stick so closely to what is thought to be essential as to leave out texture needed to show that the vision really is worthy and viable. Of course, both these extremes should be avoided.
Another instance, I think, of a difference in presentation priorities, derives from the issue of class relations. To what degree do advocates highlight and explore the class hierarchy between disempowered workers and empowered coordinators versus noting that it exists but not overly addressing it? I am not sure this difference even exists, but it certainly could. Some advocates of participatory economics could think emphasis is needed so that immediate program and then final aims aren’t subverted by coordinator interests dominating choices. Other advocates might think deemphasis is needed to avoid unnecessarily polarizing tensions between coordinator class members and working class members when they could all mobilize against owners.
Another possible place where I think there may be differences in ways of presenting could arise from different views about how to talk about efficiency. So, first, what is efficiency? Efficiency is, I believe, accomplishing what you desire to accomplish without wasting things you value. So if you can do a task in way one, and you can do it in way two, and way one gets you the outcome that you seek and does it without wasting stuff that you value and way two gets you to the same outcome, but it wastes people’s time or wastes resources or wastes inputs, you will consider way one more efficient than way two.
It turns out, in others words, that being efficient has to do with stuff that you value as ends and as means. And what we value is in the eye of the beholder. For a capitalist, efficiency means making profits while reproducing the conditions of capitalist dominance without wasting anything that the capitalist values. But notice, capitalists don’t value other people’s wellbeing. They don’t value the ecology. If they get to their sought end of profit and they do it by cost cutting and by speed up or by dumping waste, they feel they are supremely efficient. But since we value the human wellbeing of the workforce and the environment around the workplace, (not to mention we don’t seek capitalist ends), we think they capitalist practices are grossly inefficient. Since we don’t value profits for owners, and we do value human wellbeing and development for workers and consumers, for us efficiency is very different than it is for capitalists. If all participatory economy advocates can agree on that, and I suspect we can all agree on that, then what is the difference we might have regarding how we talk about efficiency?
I think the difference here is that some advocates of participatory economics might say that using the word efficiency and thinking about it in terms of time, energy, and getting things done well and quickly is enough. You don’t have to clarify for every situation what is valued and what is sought to make clear how your approach is humanly and not capitalistically efficient. People just understand. Other advocates might say no, people don’t automatically understand. The word efficient is so warped by the fact that now it is based on what owners seek and value, that in people’s minds, the use of the word only implies getting tasks done more quickly with less waste of inputs. Well, what if getting tasks done more quickly imposes hardship upon the people doing the tasks? In that case, it might not be more efficient to get the same output by reducing the time spent. Or what if in a good economy we have a workplace that produces vehicles and we ask what does it mean to be efficient at producing vehicles? If the answer someone offers is to produce them with as little time spent as possible or with as little effort expended as possible, in fact that may or may not be efficient. What if producing it with less time spent is accomplished by incorporating methods which are dangerous or which simply reduce the fulfillment of workers on the job? What if reducing effort involves increasing pollution? The point is, we desire efficiency in the sense of accomplishing human fulfillment and development without wasting things that we value.
In this case, I think the difference among participatory economy’s advocates is operational. I don’t think we disagree about whether or not we want to be efficient. To not want to be efficient is to not want to attain our sought ends, which is sort of ridiculous. Or it is to want to attain sought ends in a manner that costs more in terms of things we value than it has to. And that also is sort of ridiculous. So we want to be efficient, but only if we take into account the full dimensions of both our sought goal and our methods. The difference is about the wisdom of using terms without being certain people hear them as we mean them.
Dealing With Differences
Okay. If participatory economy’s advocates have the above described differences and perhaps others that I haven’t perceived, how should we navigate these differences? I think a good answer arises from the underlying values of participatory economics and participatory society. We value diversity. That means we understand it is quite valuable to have diverse views, opinions, and approaches in the air, even if operationally we can only implement one at a time. That is, though we often can’t simultaneously do all things advocates favor, we can keep different preferences on the table so that we’re constantly able to upgrade from one to another if it becomes evident that the one we have been using isn’t the one we ought to be using.
Advocates of participatory economics say that you can’t have private ownership of workplaces. Somebody else says you can. This difference is not the type I’m talking about. You don’t navigate this difference. You’re going to have to decide between the two options and to keep the option of having capitalists on the table is not really viable. You will not every day reassess that. Why? Because removing private ownership of productive assets is part of the core of the system that you support and you see the core as essential. You may reassess in light of new experiences the details of participatory planning. You may reassess the details of how to implement balanced jobs, especially across workplaces. You may reassess the details of how to fulfill equitable remuneration, especially in different workplaces. But you don’t continually reassess having private ownership versus having a productive commons. You don’t continually reassess having a corporate division of labor versus having balanced jobs. You don’t continually reassess having exploitation versus having equitable remuneration. You don’t continually reassess having markets or central planning versus having participatory planning. So I think a good way to navigate the differences discussed in this essay is to welcome them. It is to be open-minded about them. But we shouldn’t just say, okay, willy-nilly, you think that therefore, that’s right.
No. You advocate for what you believe. You make a case for what you believe, but you leave open the possibility that you are wrong so you continue to consider alternatives. What would be bad would be to be utterly inflexible about differences among advocates of a particular vision. So in the case we’re discussing it would be bad for advocates of participatory economics to treat differences among themselves about things like those we’ve been talking about above as if they are differences in principle, as if they are differences about essential core features. That is the kind of approach that leads to dumb and even suicidal splits.
Suppose you have a political approach, a movement approach, and there’s a difference within the ranks. Good would be if it’s a difference which is not about the core of the whole project, but is about the project’s details of implementation, or is about how we describe it, or is about how we understand the circumstances in which we’re pursuing it, and we recognize that those circumstances can change and our opinions might change, so we keep different contending ideas alive and keep exploring them even though at any given time for coherence we may have to arrive at a shared overall view. Bad would be to treat such differences as if they are like differing about whether or not we should have royalty, or whether or not we should have slavery, or whether or not we should have private ownership, exploitation, or markets.
In other words, we should not treat all differences alike. When we treat differences of the sort that we should preserve and pay attention to as if, instead, they are fundamental, that’s when one part of a community of advocates of something splits from another part of the community of advocates of that thing. And when that happens, it tends to be because the two subsets get caught up in their allegiance to their own view and their own identity, and not caught up in learning from unfolding experience so as to find the best outcome. The point is there are reasons for respectful dismissiveness and there are reasons to be respectful and not dismissive.
For example, if “from each according to ability to each according to need” proves itself better than equitable remuneration because of circumstances that we can’t predict now, okay, so be it. It’s better. Great. One isn’t attached to equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor to the exclusion of acknowledging that something else may prove itself better. And vice versa, if it becomes obvious that equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor is more essential and desirable, then you would imagine the contrary view would fade away. And similarly for differences about job balancing, allocation, or emphases of description.
We want respectful flexible exploration and refinement of views that we continually adapt to account for new experiences. We don’t want dismissive attachment to views that we inflexibly deem incontestable.
Telos is the ancient Greek word for ‘end’, or ‘perfection’, or ‘purpose’. Hence, teleology is the philosophical discipline which seeks to understand the proper purpose of things. The basic idea animating teleology in Classical Greek philosophy is that every type of living being has a distinctive essential nature. When this nature is fulfilled, the genuine flourishing of that being naturally occurs.
But nature itself, though self-balancing over the long run, is complex. Hence, there are all sorts of ways in which any given being – such as a person within a political community – can be unbalanced in his or her own natural tendencies. The unbalanced person may, for example, lack self-control. Such a person will act impulsively according to their immediate feelings, fears, and desires, without the proper governance of their instincts by well-trained habits, moral insight, and long-range reasoning. Such a person fails to fulfil their genuinely human nature and will be alienated from their own essential humanity. Such a person will be in conflict with the community to whom they belong. Any community habitually characterized by tendencies that are un-natural will be in dissonance with itself and other communities, will be at odds with the divine order of the cosmos, and will be unsustainably parasitic on the human and natural ecosystems on which the life of that community depend.
Being disordered in one’s natural inclinations is a perennial problem for human individuals and communities. For this reason, children have to be formed to have virtuous characters so that they can grow up to be in wise and rational control of their desires and fears. One only becomes fully human – that is, realizes one’s true human nature – by rational self-mastery and moral discipline. And yet, Aristotle maintains, things naturally tend towards flourishing.
To Aristotle there is a necessary relationship between what is natural and what is good. Equally, there is a necessary relationship between what is unnatural and what is bad. Aristotelian teleology, then, reads moral goodness off from natural flourishing. Here, when any person is being genuinely natural, they are also being morally good, and their life exemplifies the excellence (virtue) of genuine human flourishing.
Aristotle was one of the foundering minds of political science in the Western intellectual tradition. After carefully describing many different political constitutions in the ancient world, Aristotle sought to understand the different ways in which all political structures are trying to achieve human flourishing. Aristotle clearly understood that power in any civic context is both necessary and dangerous, so a civic community that is genuinely oriented to the highest and common good is a project that can never be once and for all time realized. No constitutional structure in itself ‘achieves’ political success, but the community that appreciates the benefits of genuine power, and guards against the ‘un-natural’ pitfalls of power, and that aims at true goodness for all, will be able to continuously renew itself. But whilst flourishing is what we all naturally aspire to, the ‘un-natural’ tendency for moral laziness to settle in on any comfortable citizenry, and the harvesting of popular approval by the politically ambitious for their own advantage, must be constantly guarded against by any political form of life.
Aristotle thought that the distinctive essence of human nature is that we are speech using beings. We are uniquely “political animals” who can only genuinely flourish when we use rational and moral persuasion to pursue human happiness together. So orienting our common lives together, via public speech, to pursue the Highest Good – or, to use Cicero’s Latin phrase, the Summum Bonum – is a civic community that is aiming at that goal (telos) of a humanly flourishing polity.
Aristotle was very interested in what imbalances were likely to be endemic to different political structures, and he developed the idea of the political revolution to point this out. He thought that tyranny was always produced by some terrible civic crisis that concentrated power in just one person, but that power cannot actually be maintained only by one, so tyranny evolves naturally into oligarchy. Oligarchy is also unstable, as once power has been divulged downward, more people want a share of it; thus oligarchy evolves naturally into democracy. Democracy is also inherently unstable because crowd manipulating popularists easily exploit this form of power for their own interests, at the cost of the genuine flourishing of the polity. So democracy evolves naturally into anarchy, which produces the collapse of civic order, and calls forth a powerful tyrant to impose order. And so the political cycle (revolution) continues and never finally settles on any one form of government.
Whatever one may think of Aristotle’s political science, teleology remains indispensable if one wishes to know if any public institution or civic ideal is succeeding or failing. When it comes to our distinctive type of politics – that is, Western, modern, secular, liberal, and democratic politics – one has to have some idea of what makes for a polity that promotes human flourishing before one can tell if our democracy is succeeding or failing.
However, teleology has been in serious trouble as a feature of Western political philosophy since the revolt against Aristotle that started with the rise of the modern era. This produces a difficult problem for us if we are trying to work out if democracy is succeeding or failing, and what makes it succeed, and what makes it fail.
If we have no clear idea of what morally characterizes human flourishing in a political context, and no clear vision of the highest good to which we are continuously politically aspiring, then we have no clear means of judging whether our democracy is succeeding or failing. We may well be able to sense a turn of the political wheel creeping up on us, and we may not like the post-truth turn towards popularist demagogues on the one hand, and ever more centralized and civically unaccountable state and corporate power on the other hand, but we cannot say what is unnatural and immoral about this situation if we only have a procedural understanding of what democracy is. If we do not have any genuinely teleological understanding of how democracy should promote human flourishing, then the movement of real power away from the demos is simply an observable fact which we may not like, rather than something that is inherently unnatural and at odds with human flourishing.
In the Australian context, Stan Grant and Malcolm Turnbull both have much to say on ‘the falling of the dusk’, and the pressing need to ‘defend democracy’, where both sense real peril to our democratic form of political life. Yet, both thinkers are remarkably philosophically thin when it comes to why liberal democracy defines a genuinely flourishing political form of life. They tell me that they don’t like the erosion of democracy, but they do not tell me what is inherently bad about the emerging post-political dynamics of power in a techno-feudal, algorithmically manipulated, and increasingly conflict prone and populist age. What if the majority of Australians really don’t care about the erosion of democratic politics?
I think a strong argument can be made that throwing Aristotelian teleology out is intimately linked with the pending failure of our democracies. Let me put this argument to you now.
Francis Bacon was famously uninterested in metaphysics. To him, practical power is what really matters, and such power can only be had by what we now call scientific knowledge. Here, the experimental and mathematical knowledge of how Nature works enables us to have power over her, gives us freedom from her destructive vicissitudes, and promotes human utility. Indeed, to Bacon, science is a theological and eschatological enterprise. God has given us dominion over the earth, and science is the way we will recover this lost dominion after the fall. Further, as the prophet Daniel foretold, knowledge will greatly increase in the last days, so the advance of science will hurry along the end of the age of toil and struggle, and lead us into a great and shining future. The deeply modern belief in the obvious link between advances in science and utopian progress is the secularization of Bacon’s eschatology.
Notably, university learning was intimately linked with Aristotle and the Church in early modernity, and traditional teleological categories were also integral with how university educated professionals understood law and politics. But the pragmatic advancement of science gradually got rid of teleology and was inclined to ignore or entirely re-draw medieval theological thought, to suit more post-Aristotelian tastes. Notably, Pierre Gassendi’s successful revival of ancient atomism facilitated the recovery of Empiricist, Epicurean and Democritan approaches to natural knowledge, which simply dropped the idea that purpose was a real feature of nature. This needs to be unpacked a little.
To Aristotle, everything has four causes: material, efficient, formal and final. We still understand material and efficient causes in nature (which is what modern physics studies) but formal causation concerns the intellective essence (the ‘form’) of any given being, and final causation concerns the natural ‘end’ or purpose to which that being tends. Put simply, modern science does not think essential natures and intrinsic purposes are features of natural reality. We now typically think that whatever is natural simply is – it has no moral or essential meaning – because natural reality is made up of atoms, in motion, in space, only. Observable, manipulable and material Nature does not have any value or purpose. Value and purpose have thus migrated out of Nature and into Culture.
Value and purpose are now humanly concocted meanings that we create and project onto nature, rather than value and meaning being anything you can discover from observing nature. Hence, teleology as an observation-based science giving us fact-grounded moral and purposive truths, has been abandoned in the age of modern science. Nature is here eviscerated of any real intrinsic qualities and essential purposes.
In the modern era Nature starts to become a merely factual domain of materially manipulable things that have no intrinsic moral or purposive meanings, and Culture starts to become a purely poetic construction of humanly dreamed up meanings and values.
I say “starts to become” because Western moral values and civic purposes do not cease to be profoundly defined by overtly Christian theological and Aristotelian philosophical categories until as recently as the 1970s. All the way through early modernity Aristotelian categories of Natural Law (where what is natural is what is good) and Christian categories of high meaning, continued to deeply shape Western forms of law and governance. There is a notable switch in the late 19th century where – according to the historian of modern science and religion, Peter Harrison – a “remarkable reversal” happens such that instead of Christian theology holding final authority as qualitative and essential public truth, an explicitly secularized science comes to replace transcendent religious truth with quantified and pragmatic truth. But this reversal takes about 100 years to work its way from elite progressive and secularizing intellectual circles into the common life of the West.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s is the most overt face of a broad rejection of Christian and Natural Law categories of what is good and respectable in the public domain. Popular youth culture now embraces a genuinely modern ‘naturalism’ where Nature herself has nothing to say about what is right or wrong, or what promotes flourishing or harm (though Nature does tell us what is pleasurable, and pleasure becomes the only natural good). At this point radical avant-garde progressives break out of an elite intellectual sub-culture and the long march away from Western Christendom turns a decisive cultural corner. Here Nature tells us no moral right or wrong, and Culture simply makes up whatever values and meanings that suit.
Yet, the post-war boom era of hedonic consumer capitalism centres value and meaning not in Culture as such, but in liberal individualism. Here purposes and moral meanings are entirely located in the private domain of personal choice. At this point, traditional Natural Law categories of what is intrinsically and naturally good, and traditional Christian categories of what the divinely ordained cosmic order looks like, are dropped.
So now we cannot say what the common good telos of liberal democracy is, other than it gives individuals whatever they want (if they can afford it), it allows them to believe whatever they like about religion and morality, and it gives individuals whatever legally legitimate personal construction of purpose and meaning that they wish to choose. This is an entirely different context to the birth of modern democracy in the English-speaking world, which is tied to the traditions of the English parliament, to the experiment of the United States, to the mid 19th century wave of European constitutional democracies, and – last of all – to the birth of the Australian nation and its distinctive political system in 1901.
English language modern democratic government is birthed in a Christian and Natural Law culture. Here, the moral purpose of the polity itself was both revealed partially by Nature, but also defined by transcendent theological truths. Values and purposes were here ‘bigger’ than individual freedom, and gave a positive moral and cosmic meaning to genuine human freedom. But this sort of democracy requires Natural Law categories of moral truth that are incumbent upon all citizens whatever their private moral and religious convictions may be, and a public respect for the transcendent theological categories of high meaning defining justice (in distinction from mere power) and authority (in distinction from mere legal and procedural correctness). Such an outlook grounds the public institutions of law and government in something morally higher than the ‘black box’ proceduralism of a simply legally correct parliamentary and electoral process.
We have now secularized political power well beyond the formal separation of church and state, such that all theological categories are now largely excluded from the public domain. We have now privatized all moral and purpose categories and made the public domain rigorously procedural and amorally pragmatic (i.e., the ‘good’ is defined largely in terms of wealth, safety, and national pride – none of which are inherently moral categories at all). Thus we have removed the high meanings, moral commitments, and common purposes that were assumed in the birth of our democracies. But can our democracies as they were originally envisioned survive in a public culture that is now so comparatively morally and theologically impoverished?
Plato’s Republic is trying to think what the ideal political community – the city that facilitates true human flourishing – is like. In Book Two, the interlocutors reject a luxury oriented state, calling this – reminiscent of one of Odysseus’ strange adventures – a City of Pigs. Here, via the unbridled indulgence of our animal desires for pleasure and ease, we lose our humanity and become sub-human. In fact, we become pen animals to be harvested by those powerful enchanters who control us through controlling our food troughs. (A well-known truism among those who study information and surveillance technology notes that if an on-line product is free, then the user is the product!)
As both Plato and Aristotle see it, any polity primarily set up for sensual luxury is a fevered city which mis-reads human nature as defined merely by sub-rational animal interests. For humans do not have the same nature as creatures without speech. Speech is unique to the human animal, and makes us uniquely human, for it is by speech that we are more than brutes, we pursue the highest good, and we participate in divine things – justice, beauty, reason, goodness, and so on. But now that the West has effectively flung off the remnants of Christendom and Natural Law, Nature has no moral value and no essential or transcendently anchored purposes, but Culture simply manufactures ‘values’ and ‘purposes’ which each individual can pick and choose as they like. Under such cultural conditions we rather assume that our brute animal nature is our only real nature, and then the City of Pigs is the only sensible and realistic form of political life we can imagine. As Bill Clinton famously discerned, in such a context, politics amounts to nothing more than “the economy” (and we hungry pigs all stupidly agree).
Could it be that democracy in the Western nation-state tradition is no longer defined by the assumed categories of Natural Law and sacred transcendence that were part and parcel of its origins? Could it be that only a City of Pigs makes sense to both the electorate and our pragmatic political class for we no longer have any assumed understanding of what the distinctly human purposes are that a polity must aspire to facilitate? Could it be that in our post-Christian context there is no sacred participation of justice and authority in any higher truths than simply wealth, power, and interest?
It is the 25th of April as I write. I went to the dawn service in ANZAC Square in Brisbane this morning. Noticeably, the plaque on the shrine read “For God, King, and Empire”. I hazard that none of the participants in that service thought the real meaning of the sacrifice of young men at Gallipoli in 1915 was Australia’s loyalty – to the death – to God, King, and Empire. And yet we all stood when the King’s representative (the Governor of Queensland) arrived, and prayers and hymns to the Christian God were indeed integral with that service, and the Christian hope of the resurrection of the dead was unflinchingly proclaimed by the Anglican chaplain of that service (and the English monarch – who is also Australia’s king – is still the Head of the Anglican Church). It seems that the habits, the ceremonies, the public theology, the natural law categories of intrinsic human dignity, and the liturgies of the past still resonates with our very secularized and consumer formed polity, even if the meanings of the past are now both unknown to us, and beyond our coherent articulation.
In the post-Howard era the meaning of the ANZAC legend has been nearly completely re-created in order to give spiritually starved Australians at least some sense of higher meaning, and some sort of nebulously transcendent reason to be prepared to sacrifice the lives of their young sons (and daughters) to the Australian nation. But this new meaning rests on old categories of divinely gifted dignity and essential human nature that, perhaps, our City of Pigs age can never really wipe from our hearts and minds. Perhaps, even, Aristotle and the Bible are right about what it really means to be human?
This morning I got the impression that we really don’t understand our own fore fathers and mothers from the early 20th century. We think we are commemorating those who died in the defense of our nation to keep us free – we have no thoughts about God, King, or Empire now. And of course, being an invading force in Turkey, there is no case to be made that our legendary first ANZACs were defending or even serving Australia. How the categories of meaning, of high purpose, of human flourishing have changed in a little over a century. How the meaning of history has been recast by the present. The context of assumed shared meanings is incredibly important when we try and think about what our polity is for, and about whether our form of political life is serving human flourishing or has been corrupted.
So what makes Australian democracy fail, and what makes it succeed?
The Australian democracy arises out of the English Crown and Parliament tradition. That tradition is embedded in Christian theological and Natural Law understandings of the sacred origins of justice and political authority. Here, the concepts of the essential meaning of human nature and the good polity are defined by: ruling sovereignty as a divinely mediated sacrament; the imago Dei giving equal dignity to all people; the sacred role of speech in deliberative power, and; the collective pursuit of the Summum Bonum as the goal of any good polity.
We have systematically undone our public heritage in Christian theology and Natural Law teleology since the 1970s, so we will not be able to uphold the kind of democracy that our founding fathers envisioned. Their vision for us is failing because we no longer share their basic philosophical, theological, and moral convictions, or their vision of what humanity essentially is. We now rather want politics to promote Australia as a City of Pigs.
English origin democracy is not well suited to the kind of polity we seem to now want. According to Yanis Varoufakis global techno-feudalism is replacing both capitalist economics and nation-state democratic politics, and according to Shoshana Zuboff, individualized deep surveillance marketing is powerfully training us to be happy little pigs with our snouts firmly in the global corporate, informational, entertainment, financial industry, and military-industrial (US aligned) trough. We are not going to need democratic politics with this future already firmly in place. So frankly, I can’t now see what could make Australian democracy – at least in continuity with its pre-1970s origins – succeed. It looks like Aristotle is right again. We are in for a revolution in political life-form, if it has not already happened.
Then again, perhaps the above is too bleak. All we need to do to revive democracy in our English system tradition is to recover a sense of the meaning of human flourishing that is bigger than being fat and happy pigs pursuing our own private interests. The structures of power are still officially accountable to the people. If the people can envision a genuinely moral and genuinely high vision of what it means to be human, and what collective human flourishing actually looks like, then we do not need to give in to the City of Pigs. Why should we go quietly into that political night? How about we intelligently and diligently resist abdicating the responsibilities of the democratic citizenry and stop handing power over to the new alliances forming between information technology, corporate power and the all-knowing nanny state? Why don’t we try that?
Dr Paul Tyson is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. Tyson is an integral thinker who works across philosophy, theology and sociology. Metaphysics and epistemology, understood not only philosophically and theoretically, but equally theologically and sociologically, are his areas of interest. At present he is a Principal Investigator and the Project Co-coordinator for the “After Science and Religion” project, run through IASH. This project stems from Professor Peter Harrison’s 2015 text, The Territories of Science and Religion, and seeks to re-think what both science and religion could look like as we move forward.
As we wrote a few weeks earlier, Stella Morris-Assange, lawyer and partner of Julian Assange, came to Greece. The occasion was the screening of the documentary “Ithaca – the battle for the liberation of Julian Assange” at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival and at the special screening organized in Athens by mέta | the Centre for Postcapitalist Civilisation. After all, this documentary was created precisely for this reason: to be a “vehicle” with which John Shipton, Julian’s father, and Stella will travel the world to convey the story of the journalist and activist who is being persecuted simply for making the truth of the US war crimes known to the world.
During the few hours that Stella Assange spent in Athens, she agreed to give us an interview. All of our editorial teams have stood by Julian from the beginning. And the Italian team recently coordinated two major public awareness events. Stella Assange spoke about the role of social movements today, the need to turn the spotlight back from Julian to the US, the CIA and the war crimes revealed by Wikileaks, and shared with us the benchmarks from which she draws hope. The interview was conducted by Mariannella Kloka. The editing was done by Christina Anna Dafni.
In a hypothetical race to claim the mantle of biggest threat to humanity, nuclear war, ecological catastrophe, rising authoritarianism, and new pandemics are still well in front of the pack. But, look there, way back but coming on fast. Is that AI? Is it a friend rushing forward to help us, or another foe rushing forward to bury us?
As a point of departure for this essay, in their recent Op Ed in The New York Times Noam Chomsky and two of his academic colleagues—Ian Roberts, a linguistics professor at the University of Cambridge, and Jeffrey Watumull, a philosopher who is also the director of artificial intelligence at a tech company—tell us that “however useful these [AI] programs may be in some narrow domains (they can be helpful in computer programming, for example, or in suggesting rhymes for light verse), we know from the science of linguistics and the philosophy of knowledge that they differ profoundly from how humans reason and use language. These differences place significant limitations on what these programs can do, encoding them with ineradicable defects….”
They continue: “Unlike humans, for example, who are endowed with a universal grammar that limits the languages we can learn to those with a certain kind of almost mathematical elegance, these programs learn humanly possible and humanly impossible languages with equal facility.”
Readers might take these comments to mean current AI so differs from how humans communicate that predictions that AI will displace humans in any but a few minor domains is hype. The new Chatbots, painters, programmers, robots, and what all are impressive engineering projects but nothing to get overly agitated about. Current AI handles language in ways very far from what now allows humans to use language as well as we do. More, current AIs’ neural networks and large language models are encoded with “ineradicable defects” that prevent the AIs from using language and thinking remotely as well as people. The Op Ed’s reasoning feels like a scientist hearing talk about a perpetual motion machine that is going to revolutionize everything. The scientist has theories that tell her a perpetual motion machine is impossible. The scientist therefore says the hubbub about some company offering one is hype. More, the scientist knows the hubbub can’t be true even without a glance at what the offered machine is in fact doing. It may look like perpetual motion, but it can’t be, so it isn’t. But what if the scientist is right that it is not perpetual motion but nonetheless the machine is rapidly gaining users and doing harm, with much more harm to come?
Chomsky, Roberts, and Watumull say humans use language as adroitly as we do because we have in our minds a human language faculty that includes certain properties. If we didn’t have that, or if our faculty wasn’t as restrictive as it is, then we would be more like birds or bees, dogs or chimps, but not like ourselves. More, one surefire way we can know that another language-using system doesn’t have a language faculty with our language faculty’s features is if it can do just as well with a totally made up nonhuman language as it can do with a specifically human language like English or Japanese. The Op Ed argues that the modern chatbots are of just that sort. It deduces that they cannot be linguistically competent in the same ways that humans are linguistically competent.
Applied more broadly, the argument is that humans have a language faculty, a visual faculty, and what we might call an explanatory faculty that provide the means by which we converse, see, and develop explanations. These faculties permit us a rich range of abilities. As a condition of doing so, however, they also impose limits on other conceivable abilities. In contrast, current AIs do just as well with languages that humans can’t possibly use as with ones we can use. This reveals that they have nothing remotely like the innate human language faculty since, if they had that, it would rule out the non human languages. But does this mean AIs cannot, in principle, achieve competency as broad, deep, and even creative as ours because they do not have faculties with the particular restrictive properties that our faculties have? Does it mean that whatever they do when they speak sentences, when they describe things in their visual field, or when they offer explanations for events we ask them about—not to mention when they pass the bar exam in the 90th percentile or compose sad or happy, reggae or rock songs to order—they not only aren’t doing what humans do, but also they can’t achieve outcomes of the quality humans achieve?
If the Op Ed said current AIs don’t have features like we have so they can’t do things the way we do things, that would be fine. In that case, it could be true that AIs can’t do things as well as we do them, but it could also be true that for many types of exams, SATs and Bar Exams, for example, they can outperform the vast majority of the population. What happens tomorrow with GPT 4 and in a few months with GPT 5, or in a year or two with GPT 6 and 7, much less later with GPT 10? What if, as seems to be the case, current AIs have different features than humans but those different features let it do many things we do differently than we do them, but as well or even better than we do them?
The logical problem with the Op Ed is that it seems to assume that only human methods can, in many cases, attain human-level results. The practical problem is that the Op Ed may cause many people to think that nothing very important is going on or even could be going on, without even examining what is in fact going on. But what if something very important is going on? And if so, does it matter?
If the Op Ed focused only on the question “is contemporary AI intelligent in the same way humans are intelligent,” the authors’ answer is no, and in this they are surely right. That the authors then emphasize that they “fear that the most popular and fashionable strain of AI—machine learning—will degrade our science and debase our ethics by incorporating into our technology a fundamentally flawed conception of language and knowledge,” is also fair. Likewise, it is true that when current programs pass the Turing test, if they haven’t already done so, it won’t mean that they think and talk the same way we do, or that how they passed the test will tell us anything about how we converse or think. But their passing the test will tell us that we can no longer hear or read their words and from that alone distinguish their thoughts and words from our thoughts and words. But will this matter?
Chomsky, Roberts, and Watumull’s essay seems to imply that AI’s methodological difference from human faculties means that what AI programs can do will be severely limited compared to what humans can do. The authors acknowledge that what AI can do may be minimally useful (or misused), but they add that nothing much is going on comparable to human intelligence or creativity. Cognitive science is not advancing and may be set back. AIs can soundly outplay every human over a chessboard. Yes, but so what? These dismissals are fair enough, but does the fact that current AI generates text, pictures, software, counseling, medical care, exam answers, or whatever else by a different path than humans arrive at very similar outputs mean that current AI didn’t arrive there at all? Does the fact that current AI functions differently than we do necessarily mean, in particular, that it cannot attain linguistic results like those we attain? Does an AI being able to understand nonhuman languages necessarily indicate that the AI cannot exceed human capacities in human languages, or in other areas?
Programs able to do information-based linguistic tasks are very different, we believe, than tractors able to lift more weight than humans, or hand calculators able to handle numbers better than humans. This is partly because AI may take various tasks away from humans. In cases of onerous, unappealing tasks this could be socially beneficial supposing we fairly apportion the remaining work. But what about when capitalist priorities impose escalating unemployment? That OpenAI and other capitalist AI firms exploit cheap overseas labor to label pictures for AI visual training ought not come as a surprise. But perhaps just as socially important, what about the psychological implications of AI growth?
As machines became better able to lift for us, humans became less able to lift. As machines became better able to perform mathematical calculations for us, humans became less able to perform mathematical calculations. Having lost some personal capacity or inclination to lift or to calculate was no big deal. The benefits outweighed the deficits. Even programs that literally trounce the best human players at chess, go, video games, and poker (though the programs do not play the way humans do), had only a fleeting psychological effect. Humans still do those very human things. Humans even learn from studying the games the programs play—though not enough to get anywhere near as good as the programs. But what happens if AI becomes able to write letters better than humans, write essays better, compose music better, plan agendas better, write software better, produce images better, answer questions better, construct films better, design buildings better, teach better, converse better, and perhaps even provide elderly care, child care, medical diagnoses, and even mental health counseling better—or, in each case, forget about the programs getting better than us, what happens when programs function well enough to be profitable replacements for having people do such things?
This isn’t solely about increased unemployment with all its devastating consequences. That is worrisome enough, but an important part of what makes humans human is to engage in creative work. Will the realm of available creative work be narrowed by AI so that only a few geniuses will be able to do it once AI is doing most writing, therapy, composing, agenda setting, etc.? Is it wrong to think that in that case what humans would be pushed aside from could leave humans less human?
The Op Ed argues that AI now does and maybe always will do human-identified things fundamentally differently than humans do them. But does that imply, as we think many Times readers will think it does, that AIs won’t do such things as well or even better than most or perhaps even all humans. Will AIs be able to simulate human emotions and all-important human authenticity into songs and paintings they make? Maybe not, but even if we ignore the possibility of AIs being explicitly used for ill, don’t the above observations raise highly consequential and even urgent questions? Should we be pursuing AI at our current breakneck pace?
Of course, when AIs are used to deceive and manipulate, to commit fraud, to spy, to hack, and to kill, among other nefarious possibilities, so much the worse. Not to mention, if AIs become autonomous with those anti-social agendas. Even without watching professors tell of AI’s already passing graduate level examinations, even without watching programmers tell of AIs already outputting code faster and more accurately than they and their programmer friends can, and even without watching AIs already audibly converse with their engineers about anything at all including even their “feelings” and “motives”, it ought to be clear that AI can have very powerful social implications even as its methods shed zero light on how humans function.
Another observation of the Times Op Ed is that AIs of the current sort have nothing like a human moral faculty. True, but does that imply they cannot have morally guided results? We would bet, instead, that AI programs can and in many cases already do incorporate moral rules and norms. That is why poor populations are being exploited financially and psychologically to label countless examples of porn as porn—exploitative immorality in service of what, morality or just phony propriety? The problem is, who determines what AI-embedded moral codes will promote and hinder? In current AIs, such a code will either be programmed in or learned by training on human examples. If programmed in, who will decide its content? If learned from examples, who will choose the examples? So the issue isn’t that AI inevitably has no morality. The issue is that AI can have bad morality and perpetuate biases such as racism, sexism, or classism learned from either programmers or training examples.
Even regarding a language faculty, as the Op Ed indicates certainly there is not one like ours in current AI. But is ours the only kind of faculty that can sustain language use? Whether the human language faculty emerged from a million years of slow evolution like most who hear about this stuff think linguists must believe, or it emerged overwhelmingly over a very short duration from a lucky mutation and then underwent only quite modest further evolution while it spread widely, as Chomsky compellingly argues, it certainly exists. And it certainly is fundamental to human language. But why isn’t the fully trained neural network of an AI a language faculty, albeit one different from ours? It generates original text. It answers queries. It is grammatical. Before long (if not already) it will converse better than most humans. It can even do all this in diverse styles. Answer my query about quantum mechanics or market competition, please. Answer like Hemingway. Answer like Faulkner. Egad, answer like Dylan. So why isn’t it a language faculty too—albeit unlike the human one and produced not by extended evolution or by rapid luck, but by training a neural network language model?
It is true that current AI can work with human languages and also, supposing there was sufficient data to train it, with languages the human faculty can not understand. It is also true that after training, an AI can in some respects do things the human language faculty wouldn’t permit. But why does being able to work with nonhuman languages mean that such a faculty must be impoverished regarding what it can do with human languages? The AI’s language faculty isn’t an infinitely malleable, useless blank slate. It can’t work with any language it isn’t trained on. Indeed, the untrained neural network can’t converse in a human language or in a non-human language. Once trained, however, does its different flexibility about what it makes possible and what it excludes make it not a language faculty? Or does its different flexibility just make it not a human-type language faculty? And does it even matter for social as opposed to scientific concerns?
Likewise, isn’t an AI faculty that can look at scenes and discern and describe what’s in them and can even identify what is there but is out of place being there, and that can do so as accurately as people, or even more accurately, a visual faculty, though again, certainly not the same as a human visual faculty?
And likewise for a drawing faculty that draws, a calculating faculty that calculates, and so on. For sure, despite taking inspiration from human experiences and evidence, such as AI programmers have done, none of these AI faculties are much like the human versions. They do not do what they do the way we humans do what we do. But unless we want to say that the contingent, historically lucky human ways of information processing are the only ways of information processing that can handle language as intelligently as humans can, and are the only ways of information processing that can not only produce and predict but also explain, we don’t see why true observations that current AI teaches us nothing about how humans operate imply that current AI can’t in two or five, or ten or twenty years—be indistinguishable from human intelligence, albeit derived differently than human intelligence.
More, what even counts as intelligence? What counts as creativity and providing explanations? What counts as understanding? Looking at current reports, videos, etc., even if there is a whole lot of profit-seeking hype in them, as we are sure is the case, we think AI programs in some domains (for example playing complex games, protein folding, and finding patterns in masses of data) already do better than humans who are best at such pursuits, and already do better than most humans, in many more domains.
For example, how many people can produce art work better than current AIs? We sure can’t. How many artists can do so even today, much less a year from now? A brilliant friend just yesterday told of having to write a complex letter for his work. He asked chatGPT to do it. In a long eye blink he had it. He said it was flawless and he admitted it was better than he would have produced. And this was so despite that he has written hundreds of letters. Is this no more socially concerning than when decades ago people first used a camera, a word processor, a spreadsheet, or a spell checker? Is this just another example of technology making some tasks easier? Do AIs that already do a whole lot of tasks previously thought to be purely human count as evidence that AIs can do that much and likely much more? Or, oddly, does what they do count as evidence that they will never do that much or more?
We worry that to dismiss the importance of current AIs because they don’t embody human mechanisms risks obscuring that AI is already having widespread social impact that ought to concern us for practical, psychological, and perhaps security reasons. We worry that such dismissals may imply AIs don’t need very substantial regulation. We have had effective moratoriums on human cloning, among other uses of technology. The window for regulating AI, however, is closing fast. We worry that the task at hand isn’t so much to dispel exaggerated hype about AI as it is to acknowledge AI’s growing capacities and understand not only its potential benefits but also its imminent and longer run dangers so we can conceive how to effectively regulate it. We worry that the really pressing regulatory task could be undermined by calling what is occurring “superficial and dubious” or “hi tech plagiarism” so as to counter hype.
Is intelligent regulation urgent? To us, it seems obvious it is. And are we instead seeing breakneck advance? To us, it seems obvious we are. Human ingenuity can generate great leaps that appear like magic and even auger seeming miracles. Un-opposed capitalism can turn even great leaps into pain and horror. To avoid that, we need thought and activism that wins regulations.
Technologies like ChatGPT don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist within societies and their defining political, economic, community, and kinship institutions.
The US is in the midst of a mental health crisis with virtually every mental health red flag metric off-the-charts: Suicides and ‘deaths of despair’ are at historic levels. Alienation, stress, anxiety, and loneliness are rampant. According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America, the primary drivers of our breakdown are systemic: economic anxiety, systemic oppressions, alienation from our political, economic, and societal institutions. Capitalism atomizes us. It then commodifies meaningful connections into meaninglessness.
Social Media algorithms calculate the right hit that never truly satisfies. They keep us reaching for more. In the same way that Social Media is engineered to elicit addiction through user-generated content, language model AI has the potential to be far more addicting, and damaging. Particularly for vulnerable populations, AI can be fine-tuned to learn and exploit each person’s vulnerabilities—generating content and even presentation style specifically to hook users in.
In a society with rampant alienation, AI can exploit our need for connection. Imagine millions tied into AI subscription services desperate for connection. Profit motive will incentivize AI companies to not just lure more and more users, but to keep them coming back.
Once tied in, the potential for misinformation & propagandization greatly exceeds even social media. If AI replaces human labor in human defining fields, what then is left of “being human”? Waiting for AI guidance? Waiting for AI orders?
Clarity about what to do can only emerge from further understanding what is happening. But even after a few months of AI experiences, suggestions for minimal regulations seem pretty easy to come by. For example:
Legislate that all AI software & algorithms that have public impact must be Open Sourced allowing for their source code to be audited by the public.
Establish a new regulatory body, similar to the FDA, for public impact software.
Legislate that all AI-generated content, whether voice, chat, image, video, etc., must include a clearly visible/audible, standardized watermark/voicemark stating that the content was generated by AI, that the user has to acknowledge.
Legislate that all AI generated content provide a list of all specific sources used/learned to generate that particular content, including weights.
Legislate that any firm, organization, or individuals creating and distributing intentionally misleading and/or manipulative false AI created content be subject to severe penalties.
Legislate that no corporation, public or private, can replace workers with AI unless the government okays the step as being consistent with human priorities (not just profit seeking), the workforce of the workplace votes in favor of the change as being consistent with workforce conditions and desires (and not just profit seeking), and the replaced workers continue to receive their current salary from their old firm until they are employed at a new firm.
This is the text of my talk at #FreeTheTruth: Secret Power, Media Freedom and Democracy, held at St Pancras Church, London, on Saturday 28 January 2023. Other speakers were former British ambassador Craig Murray and Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi, author of the recent Secret Power: Wikileaks and its Enemies.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also presented the Gavin MacFayden award, the only media prize voted on by whistleblowers, to Julian Assange for being “the journalist whose work most exemplifies the importance of a free press”. Craig Murray accepted it on Assange’s behalf. Video of the event is embedded in the text below.
During an interview back in 2011, Julian Assange made an acute observation about the role of what he called society’s “perceived moral institutions”, such as liberal media:
What drives a paper like the Guardian or New York Times is not their inner moral values. It is simply that they have a market. In the UK, there is a market called “educated liberals”. Educated liberals want to buy a newspaper like the Guardian, and therefore an institution arises to fulfil that market… What is in the newspaper is not a reflection of the values of the people in that institution, it is a reflection of the market demand.
Assange presumably gained this insight after working closely the previous year with both newspapers on the Afghan and Iraq war logs.
One of the mistakes we typically make about the so-called “mainstream media” is imagining that its outlets evolved in some kind of gradual bottom-up process. We are encouraged to assume that there is at least an element of voluntary association in how media publications form.
At its simplest, we imagine that journalists with a liberal or leftwing outlook gravitate towards other journalists with a similar outlook and together they produce a liberal-left newspaper. We sometimes imagine that something similar takes place among rightwing journalists and rightwing newspapers.
All of this requires ignoring the elephant in the room: billionaire owners. Even if we think about those owners—and in general we are discouraged from doing so—we tend to suppose that their role is chiefly to provide the funding for these free exercises in journalistic collaboration.
For that reason, we infer that the media represents society: it offers a market place of thought and expression in which ideas and opinions align with how the vast majority of people feel. In short, the media reflects a spectrum of acceptable ideas rather than defining and imposing that spectrum.
Of course, if we pause to think about it, those assumptions are ludicrous. The media consists of outlets owned by, and serving the interests of, billionaires and large corporations—or in the case of the BBC, a broadcasting corporation entirely reliant on state largesse.
Furthermore, almost all corporate media needs advertising revenue from other large corporations to avoid haemorrhaging money. There is nothing bottom-up about this arrangement. It is entirely top-down.
Journalists operate within ideological parameters strictly laid down by their outlet’s owner. The media doesn’t reflect society. It reflects the interests of a small elite, and the national security state that promotes and protects that elite’s interests.
Those parameters are wide enough to allow some disagreement—just enough to make western media look democratic. But the parameters are narrow enough to restrict reporting, analysis and opinion so that dangerous ideas—dangerous to corporate-state power—almost never get a look-in. Put bluntly, media pluralism is the spectrum of allowable thought among the power-elite.
If this doesn’t seem obvious, it might help to think of media outlets more like any other large corporation—like a supermarket chain, for example.
Supermarkets are large warehouse-like venues, stocking a wide range of goods, a range similar across all chains, but distinguished by minor variations in pricing and branding.
Despite this essential similarity, each supermarket chain markets itself as radically different from its rivals. It is easy to fall for this pitch, and most of us do: to the extent that we start to identify with one supermarket over the others, believing it shares our values, it embodies our ideals, it aspires to things we hold dear.
We all know there is a difference between Waitrose and Tesco in the UK, or Whole Foods and Walmart in the U.S. But if we try to identify what that difference amounts to, it is hard to know—beyond competing marketing strategies and the targeting of different shopping audiences.
All the supermarkets share a core capitalist ideology. All are pathologically driven by the need to generate profits. All try to fuel rapacious consumerism among their customers. All create excessive demand and waste. All externalise their costs on to the wider society.
Media publications are much the same. They are there to do essentially the same thing, but they can only monetise their similarity by presenting—marketing—it as difference. They brand differently not because they are different, but because to be effective (if not always profitable) they must reach and capture different demographics.
Supermakets do it through different emphases: is it Coca-Cola or wine that serves as a loss-leader? Should green credentials and animal welfare be accentuated over value for money? It’s no different with the media: outlets brand themselves as liberal or conservative, on the side of the middle class or the unskilled worker, as challenging the powerful or respectful of them.
The key task of a supermarket is to create loyalty from a section of the shopping public to stop those customers straying to other chains. Similarly, a media outlet reinforces a supposed set of shared values among a specific demographic to stop readers from looking elsewhere for their news, analysis and commentary.
The goal of the corporate media is not unearthing truth. It is not monitoring the centres of power. It is about capturing readers. In so far as a media outlet does monitor power, does speak difficult truths, it is because that is its brand, that is what its audience has come to expect from it.
So how does this relate to today’s topic?
Well, not least it helps clarify something that baffles many of us. Why haven’t journalists risen up to support Julian Assange in their droves—especially once Sweden dropped the longest preliminary investigation in its history and it became clear that Assange’s persecution was, as he always warned, paving the way to his extradition to the U.S. for exposing its war crimes?
The truth is that, were the Guardian and the New York Times clamouring for Assange’s freedom;
had they investigated the glaring holes in the Swedish case, as Nils Melzer, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, did;
were they screaming about the dangers of allowing the U.S. to redefine journalism’s core task as treason under the draconian, century-old Espionage Act;
had they used their substantial muscle and resources to pursue Freedom of Information requests, as Stefania Maurizi did on her own dime;
were they pointing out the endless legal abuses taking place in Assange’s treatment in the UK;
in short, had they kept Assange’s persecution constantly in the spotlight, he would be free by now.
The efforts by the various states involved to gradually disappear him over the past decade would have become futile, even self-sabotaging.
At some level, journalists understand this. Which is precisely why they try to persuade themselves, and you, that Assange isn’t a “proper” journalist. That’s why, they tell themselves, they don’t need to show solidarity with a fellow journalist—or worse, why it is okay to amplify the security state’s demonisation campaign.
By ignoring Assange, by othering him, they can avoid thinking about the differences between what he has done and what they do. Journalists can avoid examining their own role as captured servants of corporate power.
Assange faces 175 years in a maximum-security prison, not for espionage but for publishing journalism. Journalism doesn’t require some special professional qualification, as brain surgery and conveyancing do. It does not depend on precise, abstruse knowledge of human physiology or legal procedure.
At its best, journalism is simply gathering and publishing information that serves the “public interest”. Public: that is, it serves you and me. It does not require a diploma. It does not require a big building, or a wealthy owner. Whisper it: any of us can do journalism. And when we do, journalistic protections should apply.
Assange excelled at journalism like no one before him because he devised a new model for forcing governments to become more transparent, and public servants more honest. Which is precisely why the elite who wield secret power want him and that model destroyed.
If the liberal media was really organised from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, journalists would be incensed—and terrified—by states torturing one of their own. They would be genuinely afraid that they might be targeted next.
Because it is the practice of pure journalism that is under attack, not a single journalist.
But that isn’t how corporate journalists see it. And truth be told, their abandonment of Assange—the lack of solidarity—is explicable. Journalists aren’t being entirely irrational.
The corporate media, especially its liberal outlets and their journalist-servants, understand that Assange’s media revolution—embodied by Wikileaks—is far more of a threat to them than the national security state.
Difficult home truths
Wikileaks offers a new kind of platform for democratic journalism in which secret power, along with its inherent corruptions and crimes, becomes much harder to wield. And as a result, corporate journalists have had to face some difficult home truths they had avoided till Wikileaks’ appearance.
First, the Wikileaks media revolution threatens to undermine the role and privileges of the corporate journalist. Readers no longer have to depend on these well-paid “arbiters of truth”. For the first time, readers have direct access to the original sources, to the unmediated documents.
Readers no longer have to be passive consumers of news. They can inform themselves. Not only can they cut out the middle man—the corporate media—but they can finally assess whether that middle man has been entirely straight with them.
That is very bad news for individual corporate journalists. At best, it strips them of any aura of authority and prestige. At worst, it ensures that a profession already held in low esteem is seen as even less trustworthy.
But it is also very bad news for media owners. They no longer control the news agenda. They can no longer serve as institutional gatekeepers. They can no longer define the limits of acceptable ideas and opinion.
Second, the Wikileaks revolution sheds an unflattering light on the traditional model of journalism. It shows it to be inherently dependent on—and therefore complicit with—secret power.
The lifeblood of the Wikileaks model is the whistleblower, who risks eveything to get out public-interest information the powerful want concealed because it reveals corruption, abuse or lawbreaking. Think Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
The lifeblood of corporate journalism, by contrast, is access. Corporate journalists make an implicit transaction: the insider delivers selected snippets of information to the journalist that may or may not be true and that invariably serve the interests of unseen forces in the corridors of power.
For both sides, the relationship of access depends on not antagonising power by exposing its deep secrets.
The insider is only useful to the journalist so long as he or she has access to power. Which means that the insider is rarely going to offer up information that truly threatens that power. If they did, they would soon be out of a job.
But to be considered useful, the insider needs to offer to the reporter information that appears to be revelatory, that holds out the promise for the journalist of career advancement and prizes.
Both sides are playing a role in a game of charades that serves the joint interests of the corporate media and and political elite.
At best, access offers insights for journalists into the power plays between rival elite groups with conflicting agendas—between the more liberal elements of the power elite and the more hawkish elements.
The public interest is invariably served in only the most marginal way: we get a partial sense of the divisions within an administration or a bureaucracy, but very rarely the full extent of what is going on.
For a brief period, the liberal components of the corporate media swapped out their historic access to join Wikileaks in its transparency revolution. But they quickly understood the dangers of the path they were embarking on—as the quote from Assange we began with makes clear.
Mind and muscle
It would be a big mistake to assume that the corporate media feels threatened by Wikileaks simply because the latter has made a much better fist of holding power to account than the corporate media. This isn’t about envy. It’s about fear. In reality, Wikileaks does exactly what the corporate media wishes not to do.
Journalists ultimately serve the interests of media owners and advertisers. These corporations are the concealed power running our societies. In addition to owning the media, they fund the politicians and finance the think tanks that so often dictate the news and policy agenda. Our governments declare these corporations, especially those dominating the financial sector, too big to fail. Because power in our societies is corporate power.
The pillars upholding this system of secret elite power—those disguising and protecting it—are the media and the security services: the mind and the muscle. The media corporations are there to protect corporate power using psychological and emotional manipulation, just as the security services are there to protect it using invasive surveillance and physical coercion.
Wikileaks disrupts this cosy relationship from both ends. It threatens to end the role of the corporate media in mediating official information, instead offering the public direct access to official secrets. And in so doing, it dares to expose the tradecraft of the security services as they go about their lawbreaking and abuses, and thereby impose unwelcome scrutiny and restraint on them.
In threatening to bring democratic accountability to the media and the security services, and exposing their long-standing collusion, Wikileaks opens a window on how sham our democracies truly are.
The shared desire of the security services and the corporate media is to disappear Assange in the hope that his revolutionary model of journalism is abandoned or forgotten for good.
It won’t be. The technology is not going away. And we must keep reminding the world of what Assange accomplished, and the terrible price he paid for his achievement.
We can all list many perspectives that propose different post capitalist economic aims. Must we see each perspective as a contender against the rest? What if they have compatible aims? Could we try to combine their primary virtues into a new encompassing perspective? Would an encompassing perspective be able to fulfill all our main desires? Could it attain practical viability and include only worthy features?
Inspired by that hope, we here very briefly summarize nine currently contending economic perspectives. We then propose a tenth composite perspective conceived to bridge divisions and establish links among the nine others. Note, however, that we only consider post capitalist economics. One could also consider post racist, post sexist, post authoritarian, and post unsustainable societal components to similarly seek unanticipated but welcome synergy among “contending perspectives.” If economic perspectives can unify, perhaps perspectives for other aspects of life and then for a summation of all aspects can also unify.
Here then, are the main assertions of nine economic perspectives that often contend rather than unify.
Mainstream Marxist Economy (MME) mainly seeks to eliminate private ownership of the means of production to in turn eliminate an owning capitalist class that accrues profits and decides outcomes. MME’s advocates differ over what to do with liberated means of production. Make asset ownership statist? Deliver ownership of each workplace to its workers? Institute a productive commons? Despite those differences, MME’s advocates agree on the overall goal: End class rule by capitalists so that workers control their own circumstances and benefit from their own efforts. Beyond that, for allocation some MME advocates propose central planning. Others propose markets. But MME advocates agree that allocation should provide workers and consumers control over worthy outcomes.
Councilist Marxist Economy (CME) extends from Anton Pannekoek to Rosa Luxembourg to Cornelius Castoriadis and beyond. CME wants workers councils to propose and decide workplace policies. It wants consumers councils to propose and decide individual and collective consumption. Some CME advocates say that such decisions should always be made by majority vote. Other CME advocates say actors should decide outcomes in proportion to the degree the outcomes affect them. This could be by majority vote, by consensus, or by whatever else works. CME wants allocation to achieve sought ends without wasting valued assets and to be self-managed. For that reason, CME typically rejects central planning and markets and seeks a decentralized alternative.
Anarchist Economy (AE) stretches from Bakunin through Kropotkin to Goldman, to Anarcho-Syndicalism, and more recently to Chomsky. AE rejects private ownership of means of production and all authoritarianism. It typically proposes a productive commons and council self-management. It recognizes the need for different voting methods and styles of deliberation in different situations. In particular, beyond all that, it adds to our emerging mix of desirable aims an insight that there is a third class which Bakunin initially called “intellectuals,” which Barbara and John Ehrenreich much later called the “professional managerial class,” and which Albert and Hahnel mere moments later called the “coordinator class,” but which all agree has the capacity to become a ruling class that operates over and above workers. AE seeks worthy production and consumption self-managed by those affected. Thus, AE rejects class rule. It adds to our emerging menu of aims that we should eliminate the division of employees into an empowered class that rises to rule a disempowered class.
Solidarity Economy (SE) sees itself as an umbrella term more than a specific vision. It asks: Do people mutually benefit one another as compared to advancing at one another’s expense? SE’s aim is that workers and consumers should have mutual concern and shared interests. As to how precisely to achieve such aims, SE is highly diverse with much under its umbrella, but all its arrangements seek that actors move away from antagonism and toward solidarity. SE rejects that some benefit at the expense of others. It wants all to enjoy mutual benefit. It implicitly favors approaches that propel solidarity without undue detriments. It implicitly rejects approaches which obstructs solidarity, including class division and top down or competitive zero-sum allocation. It explicitly adds achieving solidarity to our emerging menu of aims.
Green Economy (GE) also has many versions, but they all agree that economic life should be sustainable and occur in reciprocity with environmental relations. Suppose some sector of production uses more of some critical resource than the environment or people are able to replace or substitute for each year. Clearly, that resource will in time run out. Similarly, suppose a sector produces some by-product that despoils the environment in a destructive manner that we can’t reduce or mitigate each year. Clearly that despoliation can become unendurable. GE seeks institutions that account for reduction of needed inputs and profusion of harmful outputs. It favors institutions that facilitate environmental reciprocity. It rejects institutions that obstruct environmental reciprocity. Advocates of GE differ about how to accomplish their aims, but most agree that old economic forms of property ownership, decision making, and allocation are decidedly unecological.
Degrowth Economy (DGE) is a GE that determines that current use of irreplaceable resources and current output of damaging materials are, in sum, already too great to continue. DGE advises up front that some amount of current economic activity is unsustainable and highly unlikely to become sustainable by way of technological or social innovations. DGE urges that unsustainable industries need to “degrow.” Degrowth advocates differ considerably over what we need to cut back by how much, but they agree that democratic decision making should inform such choices. DGE also typically advocates that the choices should de-colonize and pursue equity. It follows that a DGE, like a GE, adds to our encompassing agenda the need for production choices to properly judge sustainability and either what investment in correctives to make or what degrowth to undertake.
Feminist Economy (FE) looks at economic activity from the angle of kinship. It makes two primary additions to our agenda regarding specifically economic aims. 1) Economic life must not produce systemic differences in costs or benefits due to sex, gender, or any other kinship related attribute. 2) Economic life must respect, accommodate, and certainly not subvert additional implications of feminist social change including insights and changes in home life, in sexual preferences and practices, in relations of parents and children, and in the implications of caring activity on those who undertake it, including altered conceptions about who that should be.
Intercommunalist Economy (IE) looks at economic activity from the angle of cultural constituencies. It too makes two primary additions regarding specifically economic aims. 1) Economic life must not produce systemic differences in costs or benefits due to race, ethnicity, religion or any other community related attribute. 2) Economic life must respect, accommodate, and certainly not subvert additional implications of intercommunalist social change including, in particular, insights and changes regarding mutual relations of cultural communities and their borders and especially innovations regarding protection of all cultural communities from domination or negation by others.
Anti-Authoritarian Economy (AAE) looks at economic activity from the angle of citizenship and polity. It also makes two primary additions regarding specifically economic aims. 1) Economic life must not produce systemic differences in costs or benefits due to any social or personal attribute that would produce undue political elevation or subordination. 2) Economic life must respect, accommodate, and certainly not subvert additional implications of political social change including, in particular, politically mandated rights, responsibilities, and procedures.
Conceiving An Encompassing Economy
Even offered as ridiculously succinctly as above, our set of nine summaries is certainly a mouthful. We can’t even pronounce the sum of it all, MMECMEAESEGEDGEFEIEAAE. But our concision in summarizing each perspective’s main priorities was not random. We emphasized primary positive desires. We deemphasized differences over means to attain primary positive desires. Our resulting task: Propose a unifying perspective that can attain all nine perspectives’ central positive insights and avoid features any of the nine perspectives would reject.
To start, to meet the core desires of mainstream Marxists clearly an encompassing vision will need to eliminate private ownership of productive assets. To that end, an encompassing perspective might propose a productive commons. If society judges prospective producers’ proposals socially worthy and environmentally viable, they get to use commonly held productive assets to produce socially beneficial products.
Next, to attain councilist aims, an encompassing perspective could propose that to self-manage production and consumption workers and consumers could use suitably conceived venues, called councils. Not only the councilist perspective wants workers and consumers to oversee economic life, but so do the rest, supposing that workers and consumers doing so could be shown viable and consistent with each perspective’s other aims. However, advocates of each of the nine perspectives might reasonably ask how an encompassing perspective proposes to ensure that workers and consumers councils will make informed, wise decisions.
Moving to the Anarchists, how might a new perspective encompass AE’s aim to eliminate an empowered class that rules over workers? How might it ensure that workers are well equipped to intelligently self-manage? Since a key factor bearing on these aims is the empowerment implications of day to day economic involvements, an encompassing perspective might seek conditions that prepare every employee to effectively participate in council deliberations and decisions. While only the anarchist perspective calls for this, if a new division of labor that delivers equal empowerment could be shown worthy and viable, it is hard to see why any of the eight other perspectives would oppose it.
The same calculus applies to attaining solidarity as emphasized by SE. Why would a new economy reject actors benefitting mutually instead of actors benefitting only at one another’s expense? Thus an encompassing perspective might urge that production, consumption, and allocation should align all actors’ interests as much as possible and certainly not force their interests into debilitating opposition. Instead of a rat race where only a few survive while the rest are humbled, subordinated, and impoverished, economic institutions should cause all economic actors to have mainly shared rather than mainly contrary interests. A primary step might be to make incomes equitable so that when I benefit you don’t lose and vice versa. Another primary step might be to organize decision making that doesn’t resemble a cauldron of contending interests. A third step might be to replace competitive allocation with allocation that unifies participants.
Next we have Green and Degrowth economies. Their addition to our growing list of aims is that when workers and consumers determine what to produce and consume, they should take into account environmental as well as personal and social costs and benefits. To this end, an encompassing perspective might propose a new allocation system in place of markets and central planning because by analysis of their incentives and logic, we know markets and central planning establish a drive to accumulate irrespective of impact on anything other than enlarging profits while maintaining existing hierarchies of wealth and power. When to reduce or even reverse growth in a sector due to its use of essential resources or due to its production of damaging byproducts needs to be democratically decided. An economy should therefore reveal potentially mitigating replacements for dwindling resources or develop means to more frugally use them, and should develop means to reduce or remove of negative byproducts by way of organizational or technical innovations—or, when needed, should degrow equitably.
Finally, and of overarching impact, in accord with the aims of inter-communalist, feminist, and anti-authoritarian economy, an encompassing perspective might seek to prevent production or consumption that generate material or power hierarchies of wealth, circumstance, or influence. It might simultaneously respect achievements emanating from intersecting kin/gender, cultural/communal, and political innovations as each emerge from and are propelled by transformations of those economy-intersecting spheres of life. And, of course, it might treat other economies outwardly in accord with the values it respects and fulfills inwardly.
The preceding discussion suggests what types of proposals might conceivably propel advocates of each of our nine highlighted perspectives to agree on an encompassing, overarching economic vision. And, indeed, an existing tenth perspective called participatory economics seeks to mature in precisely that direction. Its core economic institutions are a productive commons, workers and consumers self-managing councils, a new division of labor called balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor (plus full income for those who can’t work), and, finally, for allocation, participatory planning in place of markets and central planning.
Here are the key aims of the nine perspectives where for each we very briefly note how participatory economics might meet them.
Eliminate capitalist class rule. To achieve this, Participatory Economics replaces private ownership of productive assets with a productive commons from which producers propose to borrow assets to produce socially useful outputs.
Institute workers and consumers self-managing councils. To achieve this, Participatory Economics directly institutes self-managing workers and consumers councils and federations of councils to self-manage local production and consumption and also larger scale allocation decisions.
Ensure workers ability to make informed decisions and eliminate a class of empowered coordinators that rules workers from above. To achieve this, Participatory Economics eliminates the capitalist (and the twentieth century “socialist”) “corporate division of labor” which empowers roughly twenty percent of all producers over roughly eighty percent of all producers. In its place participatory economics institutes “balanced job complexes.” This constructs jobs as combinations of some empowering and some disempowering tasks, such that each job is comparably empowering to all other jobs. There is no empowered class above disempowered workers. More, all economic actors enjoy daily circumstances that convey information, skills, confidence, disposition, and access suitable to intelligent self-managed decision making.
Ensure that workers and consumers enjoy solidarity. Participatory economics achieves solidarity by three main features. First, income is equitable for all and in no way a function of zero sum interactions. Your income climbs only for reasons of duration, intensity, or onerousness of your socially worthy work. This does not disadvantage anyone nor does income climb so high for anyone as to cause invidious comparison. When you get more you deserve it. Also, a person’s income climbs when everyone’s income climbs. Second, your say over decisions is like everyone else’s say over decisions. All abide by the same self-managing norm. Likewise, in participatory economics actors determine and express their preferences in accord with and informed by other’s preferences. Actors seek an overall outcome in light of implications for self and for others, rather than seek a solely personal outcome regardless of implications for others.
Properly account for environmental effects of economic choices, including, when necessary, invest in sustainable means to accomplish desired production and consumption, or, when necessary, degrow unsustainable industries. To achieve this, Participatory Economics utilizes participatory planning to account for environmental effects. As well, a Participatory Economy can non-disruptively accommodate ecological innovations and policies conceived and decided beyond the economy.
Do not allow for systemic material or influence advantages by kin, gender, age, sexual identity, race, ethnicity, nation, or other cultural differentiation. Respect extra economic aims as urged by Feminist, Intercommunalist, and Anti-Authoritarian economics. Participatory Economics achieves all this by the simple fact that in it no constituency can have systemic material or influence advantage because all income is equitable and all decision making is self-managed. To abide more subtle, complex, or other innovations bearing on kinship, culture, and political innovations, a participatory economy within a society must intersect with other realms consistently and the only aspects of a participatory economy that could interfere with that are its virtues regarding economic income, circumstances, and degree of decision making say.
We do not suggest that this short essay proves participatory economics can be a unifying tenth perspective for the other nine. We claim only that it makes sufficient headway in that direction so that if you think having a unifying economic vision would benefit anti-capitalist activism, then perhaps you might also agree that it is worth working to arrive at an encompassing perspective. One step might be to more comprehensively display, debate, and explore the ten approaches to economic vision offered here with a guiding hope to promote greater unity in place of proliferating contentiousness.
Does Participatory Economics encompass? Can Participatory Economics make MMECMEAESEGEDGEFEIEAAE into PE? That is for you and time to decide.
The educational commons has been shredded. The next Labour government must fix it, argues Guy Standing, in a Labour Hub long read.
“The final purpose of education… is liberation and the struggle for higher education still” – Hegel, 1820
The education system in Britain is in the mud. That is scarcely news. But would Labour have the courage and values needed to revive it? The trouble they would have if they win the next General Election is due partly to their Party’s legacy and partly to a personal problem.
Education is, or should be, a commons. It belongs to all of us equally, in the sense that whatever counts as knowledge and learning cannot morally be made the property of anybody or any interest. It is a natural public good. If preserved as a commons, education is a superior public good, in that if everybody has good education, we all gain. A public good is one that is non-competitive, in that if one person has it, that does not or should not deprive others of it. So, denying it to some people, as when the price mechanism is used, is a denial of common rights.
In the past 50 years, the educational commons has been shredded. Instead of education as liberating, as a public good and as a means of developing cultured citizens, it has been commodified to the point where education is the largest ‘industry’ in the economy, after finance. A progressive government will have to confront a systemic collapse that is far more than a matter of more public funding or one capable of being rescued by the sensible fiscal measures so far announced by the Labour leadership.
To appreciate the scale of the challenge, and its economic aspects, we must recall what education is all about. In ancient Greece, education was depicted as a means by which people became civilised. But a struggle evolved between the ‘authoritarian’ approach, in which wise elites conveyed truth to the masses, and the ‘liberal’ Socratic approach, in which teachers and students learned from each other, in common pursuit of truth.
The latter was the model for university education from the 12th century onwards, crystallising in the views expressed by Hegel, Cardinal John Newman and J.S. Mill in the 19th century. As Newman famously stated in 1875, “A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society.”
In the UK, this liberal view was extended to workers in the early 20th century with the formation in 1903 of what became the Workers’ Education Association, set up by moderate reformists to broaden knowledge of society and politics. Seen as diverting energies from revolutionary Marxism, the WEA received the approval of the Conservative Balfour government and the likes of Winston Churchill.
Nevertheless, it advanced the liberating effects of education, conveyed in lectures and classes on the arts, social sciences, reading groups and nature study rambles. In 2003, in a book celebrating its centenary, Tony Blair wrote a Foreword. One abiding aspect of the WEA is a vision of education as a two-way process between lecturer and student. Among its formative lecturers were R.H. Tawney and Karl Polanyi.
However, it was the two World Wars that advanced the liberal model most emphatically. In 1919, a monumental statement was the Report of the Adult Educational Committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction, known ever since simply as the 1919 Report. In his covering letter to the Prime Minister, the Chair wrote that the “goal of all education” should be citizenship, “that is, the rights and duties of each individual as a member of the community; and the whole process must be the development of the individual in relation to the community.” It stated that the objective of adult education should be the strengthening of democratic society, geared towards shared civic, social and economic values. Put bluntly, adult education should not be about just preparing workers for jobs.
As the Second World War approached its end, as politicians considered a new post-war social compact, the liberal Conservative ‘Rab’ Butler steered through the 1944 Education Act, which shaped state schooling for the next 44 years. Albeit in a segregated way, and with a foolish streaming through the 11+ exam, it established free secondary schooling for all. In doing so, it reiterated education as a commons, as a public good.
The zenith of the liberal perspective came in 1963 with the Robbins Report on higher education. It was chaired by Lionel Robbins, a right-wing economist at the LSE and a founding member of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947, a society that was to produce all the economists who forged the neoliberal economics revolution in the 1970s and 1980s. The irony lay in the fact that the Robbins Report was an eloquent restatement of the classical view. It depicted the university as a public good that should be accessible to everybody able to qualify to enter it. It was firmly in the tradition of Cardinal Newman and John Stuart Mill. This is captured in three statements in the Report:
“Excellence is not something that can be bought any day in the market.”
“The essential aim of a first degree should be to teach the student how to think.”
“We should deplore any artificial stimulus to research.”
The Report stated that universities had four tasks: “the promotion of the general process of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women”, “the search for truth”, “instruction in skills”, and the transmission of culture and common standards of citizenship.
The liberal tradition was extended in the Open University, set up by Harold Wilson in 1969, overcoming scepticism from Anthony Crosland among other Labour politicians. To this day, the Open University remains the largest university in terms of student enrolments, despite going through a difficult period after the sharp rise in student fees in 2012. A benign offshoot has been the U3A, the University of the Third Age.
However, the establishment of the Open University marked the zenith of the liberal tradition. The erosion began with the arrival of Margaret Thatcher on the scene, as Secretary of State for Education, known as ‘the milk snatcher’ for ending free school milk for 7-11 year olds. Her lasting legacy came during her Prime Ministership. It began with her vandalism in selling off state school playgrounds, clearly an illegitimate theft from the educational commons. But the attack on higher education was more strategically ideological.
In 1985, at the height of the neoliberal economics revolution, a new report was published, the brainchild of Keith Joseph, Thatcher’s political mentor. Known as the Jarratt Report, after its chair Alex Jarratt, it was drawn up by a committee biased towards financial interests, with the directors of finance of Ford and of an arms company among its members. The report recommended that universities be run like businesses, stating that “universities are first and foremost corporate enterprises”, to which academic departments owed their allegiance. Vice-chancellors, rather than being ‘scholars first’, should act like chief executives, with management, finance and business skills taking primacy.
The government’s adoption of the Report’s recommendations effectively ended the academic independence of British universities. Among the reforms were abolition of academic tenure, beginning the commodification of academics, the introduction of managerialism, with a dictate to earn from university assets, and an emphasis on ‘competitiveness’ as the guide to ‘the education industry’.
The Jarratt Report was followed by the 1988 Education Reform Act, a remarkably ‘regulatory’ measure for a government claiming to favour ‘de-regulation’. Its main features were: first, introduction of a national school curriculum combined with more use of exams to make sure more children left school with qualifications for the labour market; second, removal of control over schooling by local authorities, allowing individual schools to opt out and receive funding from central government instead; and third, a declared attempt to raise standards by giving parents more choice over where to send their children to school.
The 1988 Act was an act of enclosure, centralising control over content and choice, and preparing the ground for privatisation and commodification. For state schools, Thatcher herself wanted a national curriculum that was very narrow, leaving out all artistic and creative subjects as not functionally useful.
Since then, commodification, privatisation and financialisation have detonated what was left of the educational commons and the liberal tradition. Higher education became a zone of rentier capitalism. Students and degrees became commodities. Maintenance grants were replaced by student loans in 1990 and New Labour introduced fees in 1998. Government grants were formally ended in 2015. These measures turned students into instruments of the new debt-driven economy. Students were required to take loans to pay ‘tuition fees’, which rose from £1,000 in 1998 to £9,250 in 2018 (still that in 2023). On a per capita basis, student debt in the UK is easily the highest in the world.
Universities have been turned into corporate entities plunged into market competition, with each other, with foreign universities and with other emerging purveyors of adult education. The government has steadily cut funding for universities, meaning that they must mobilise more money themselves, primarily by expanding the number of students, a tendency unleashed by the removal of the cap on numbers after 2012. The fetish of promoting economic growth was extended to universities, frontline of the ‘education industry’.
Universities began to sell themselves as ‘brands’, and accordingly devote more of the financial resources they could mobilise to selling themselves. Four developments stand out. First, they devoted more resources to making their ‘product’ an attractive package, with more lavish amenities and entertainment facilities. Second, they sought to sell their packaged product abroad by expensive sales campaigns and recruitment drives. Third, some opened up foreign campuses.
As a result of the second and third activities, today over three-quarters of a million students of British universities are studying outside Britain, and the total number of foreign students has grown to about 40% of the total. But it is the fourth outcome that implies fraud. As a result of devoting more financial resources to selling activities, much less than half the income from tuition fees is actually spent on tuition. Students are being cheated.
Meanwhile, a new trend is taking shape, which is predictable when a public good is commodified. Substitute competitors emerge to take, share and expand the market. In the UK, these are mainly MOOCs and educational brokers, both thriving with the aid of electronic technology and predatory financial capital.
MOOCs are Massive Online Open Courses. Politically, they have been given an easy ride so far. Increasingly, courses and bits of schooling are being packaged and sold to universities and schools instead of, or in addition to, teacher training in classes. There are now degrees based entirely on MOOCs.
Unsurprisingly, they tend to be cheaper than teacher-taught degrees. But to any progressive they should be concerning. They risk minimising the essence of liberal, dialogical education; they risk standardising learning and becoming instruments for indoctrinating millions in a hegemonic way of thinking. And they tend to be acquired by Big Tech and Big Finance, dominated by a few corporate giants able to extract rental profits.
MOOCs were expected to be disruptive of university education, but have proved to be mainly complementary, because as The Economist noted, students ‘are not buying education for its own sake, but rather a certificate from a respected institution.’ What has boomed most is a broker system, through ‘Online Programme Managers’, led by the firm 2U. They have gained from an increase in online second degrees. Around one third of graduate education in the USA is online, reflecting the high wage premium associated with such degrees. One can predict that MOOCs will burrow away at taking profits from universities in Britain, further eroding the liberal tradition.
However, it is another commodifying trend that should be given priority by an incoming progressive government. Generically, it may be called the ‘education disruptor’. If politicians forge an education ‘industry’ geared to preparing children and adults for jobs and for earning more, then it is likely that companies will emerge promising to do that more efficiently than universities. This is made more likely if the commodities produced by universities become ‘credentials’ rather than signals of occupational prowess. That makes it easier for competitors to offer near substitutes.
Enter the self-styled ‘education provider’. In April 2017, the government introduced the Apprenticeship Levy to boost apprenticeships. For large firms, this involves a 0.5% levy on the annual wage bill if it is over £3 million, with smaller firms paying just 5% of the cost of any apprenticeships, the government paying the remainder.
Just beforehand, a young employee in J.P. Morgan teamed up with a colleague to set up a company that has been able to take advantage of the scheme. It became Multiverse, in effect a labour broker. It places young jobseekers in firms as apprentices. The jobseekers do not pay anything directly, while the firms pay Multiverse for finding trainees. The business model is simple and risk-free. The firms that would have to pay the Apprenticeship Levy anyway can divert that to paying Multiverse, which undertook to provide nominally apprenticeship training, all online, for about 12 to 15 months.
Over six years, Multiverse has placed about 8,000 ‘apprentices’, bringing in a remarkable amount of revenue, declared to be £27 million for 2021-22 alone. Somehow, it has managed to declare a loss every year, leading to the firm receiving from the government millions of pounds of tax credits (£2.7 million in 2022). The head of Multiverse is Euan Blair, elder son of Tony Blair. At the age of 38, he was awarded an MBE for ‘Services to Education’, although it is unclear what services he has provided.
Despite his company apparently making consistently large losses, Blair flaunted his plutocrat status when he splashed out over £22 million on a luxurious five-storey west London town house, with seven bedrooms, a two-storey ‘iceberg’ basement with an indoor pool, gym and multi-car garage. In 2022 as well, financial capital poured money into his company, turning it into a unicorn, valued at £1.7 billion; Blair apparently has a 50% stake.
There is an irony in that while universities have become more like job preparation factories, the son of the Prime Minister who promoted ‘Education, education, education’ as Labour’s mantra dismisses the relevance of university education for job markets. Blair told the digital media platform UNLEASH that “a university degree has become a stamp in the passport for young people seeking access to the best careers. But, more often than not, the education they’re getting at university isn’t relevant to the jobs they’re going for.”
Blair was quoted in the Financial Times as saying: “One of the things that’s so broken about the current system is it tries to pretend a three- or four-year undergraduate degree is enough to see you through a multi-decade career. We won’t make the same mistake with apprenticeships. Our vision is for a system in which people can return to apprenticeships whenever they need to, to level-up their career.” There is no evidence that anybody does ‘pretend’ any such thing. But this disparaging of university education comes from a neoliberal perspective that sees universities as simply preparing people for careers.
Then came the potential bombshell. In September 2022, Blair’s firm was granted a licence to award degrees without the need for a university or college, a huge break with historical tradition, marking a new phase in commodification and privatisation, the apprenticeship degree or ‘degree apprenticeship’. It is moot whether a 12-15 month on-the-job training course, done entirely virtually, would have passed muster as an apprenticeship at any previous time in history. It is even more dubious to call what Multiverse is offering a ‘degree’, entitling successful apprentices to the degree of B.Sc.
Although its growth has been rapid and its completion rate has been remarkably high, the scale of this education disruption is still modest. But financial capital and the Office for Students, the government regulator that approved Blair’s ‘degree’, have clearly decided that it is a model for the future on a grand scale. But it raises many ethical and economic issues. The most obvious is that it is an abuse of the idea of a degree as the embodiment of the liberal view of education. It is also a further move towards a ‘modular’ approach to skill and training, undermining the apprenticeship traditions. It is also further shredding the idea of adult education as a commons, a public good.
Euan Blair’s disruption model (as he describes it) will pose a delicate challenge for Labour if elected as the next government. Labour’s Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, has said: “Education is a public good and should be treated as such.” Blair’s model is the opposite, as is the licence to issue degrees given by the Office for Students to James Dyson, the billionaire Brexit backer who promptly moved his headquarters to Singapore after the Brexit vote. They epitomise today’s rentier capitalism.
They also raise numerous questions. Should a commercial company be raking in millions of pounds by dispensing with ‘degrees’? Should firms be able to divert the Apprenticeship Levy to pay a corporation to recruit workers for apprenticeships paid for by the tax? Should Blair’s lightly regulated company, valued at nearly £2 billion, be receiving millions of pounds each year in tax credits, paid by the taxpaying public? Should Blair’s ‘degree’ be half the duration of a normal university degree? If Blair’s firm is allowed to issue degrees, should all its competitor online platforms be allowed to do so? The awkward questions can be multiplied.
However, there are crucial societal questions that Labour should pose. First, should the education system be an ‘industry’ driven by the perceived demands of the labour market? The current commodifying trends are destroying a broad-based liberal education. Second, how can a progressive government restore the foundational principle of education, that of developing critical minds and citizens driven by values of empathy, altruism, ethics, creativity and social solidarity, rather than by competitiveness, narcissism and personal aggrandisement? Third: Given the trends towards superficiality and commodification, at what point will a degree from a British university not be recognised as a credible degree abroad because it has been so devalued? Alarm bells should be ringing.
Following previous traumatic transformational national events, such as the two World Wars, there were radical reappraisals of the role of education. Whatever the political hue of the next government, it should set up a high-powered Commission to map out how to recover the soul of the educational commons.
Guy Standing is Professorial Research Fellow, SOAS University of London and a Council member of the Progressive Economy Forum. He is author of various books, including The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class and The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay.
He was professor in SOAS, Bath and Monash Universities, and Director of the ILO’s Socio-Economic Security Programme. He has been a consultant for many international bodies, was Research Director for President Mandela’s Labour Market Policy Commission, and has implemented several basic income pilots. His books include The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, published in 23 languages (fourth edition, 2021); The Corruption of Capitalism (third edition, 2021); Basic Income: And how we can make it happen (2017); and Plunder of the Commons (2019). In 2020, he collaborated with Massive Attack in a video based on his book, Battling Eight Giants: Basic Income Now (2020).
Idiosyncrasies for contrabass clarinet and electronics
World Premiere at the 2019 SABRe day (01/02/19), Zurich, Switzerland
This piece uses the SABRe senor technology
Idiosyncrasies for contrabass clarinet and electronics tells a ‘story’ about moving from one into another world where the ‘old’ acoustic contrabass clarinet evolves into a new ‘Another’ one as its original sounds are ‘expanded’ into electronics.
String quartet Vesna Ayama played by the Kreutzer Quartet from London gives an idea of a new society – the new era being symbolised by the title: Vesna (Spring) and Ayama, a Sanksrit word meaning “expansion,” “extension” or “breadth. Written for the Centenary of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps premiere in Paris.
€e.$i¥.Ah’s Vision offers a critique of the neoliberal establishment and proposes viable alternatives that may help us overcome the faults and instabilities it generated. It is dedicated to all the people who make the world a better place, from essential workers to those who strive for equality and justice.
Part I – The Vision of €e.$i¥.Ah 1) Hear, O Heavens, O Earth. 2) The Test. 3) The Strong and the Weak. 4) They Shall Beat their Plunder into Shares. 5) EWM.
Part II – eCo.Helet Collective Dialogues 6) This is the Vision. 7) We Have Collective Power. 8) A Portal.
In the year 10.956, interstellar archaeologists arrived to a planet in a remote corner of a distant galaxy. Despite the planet’s unassuming appearance from outer space, the archaeologists became intrigued by the state of affairs they found when they landed, and decided to stay to investigate its history. Prompted by their initial enthusiasm, they spent months of fruitless effort to find any helpful evidence. But just as they were making their preparations to leave for another world, they suddenly came across an archaeological treasure in the form of two ancient digital media sources: “The Vision of €e.$i¥.Ah” and the “eCo.Helet Collective Dialogues”.
The first of these exposed and documented the cosmology of a small sect of believers who were able to acquire immense power over the planet many millennia before. While archaeologists encountered evidence that there were various versions of The Vision of €e.$i¥.Ah, the only source they found was the so called Free Market Version which, they later discovered, was used as the official source of dogma for the dominant group’s cosmology. Its name appears to have derived from its beginning invocation ‘Hear, O heavens, O earth: this is the vision of €e.$i¥.Ah’, and it is structured into five sections: Hear, O Heavens, O earth; The Test; The Strong and the Weak; They Shall Beat their Plunder into Shares; EWM (Electronic War Music).
The eCo.Helet Collective Dialogues, on the other hand, consist of three parts: a critique of €e.$i¥.Ah’s vision, the formulation of an alternative cosmology and a short epilogue of hope. Further investigations shed light on the origin of the Dialogues, traced to a global and diverse collective group, which encompassed a large cross-section of the population of the planet contemporary to the dominant minority group.
Together, The Vision of €e.$i¥.Ah and the eCo.Helet Collective Dialogues offered the archaeologists a picture of the planet’s state nearly nine millennia before their arrival and helped them understand its present.
Voices from samples available in the public domain: Aja Barber, Grace Blakeley, Noam Chomsky, Christian Felber, David Graeber, Chris Hedges, Ann Pettifor, Kate Raworth, Asad Rehman, Arundahti Roy, Elif Shafak, Wole Soyinka, Guy Standing, Yanis Varoufakis, Richard Wolff.
Special appearances from samples available in the public domain: Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, Binyamin Netanyahu, Ronald Wilson Reagan, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Donald John Trump.
Samples from De Wolfe XV Series Effects Collection (licensed to Keele University).
Synthesised voices created with Balabolka, https://balabolka.en.lo4d.com/windows.
The author’s own recordings.
‘Orchestral’ passages created by the author are inspired by chord progressions in What a Wonderful World by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss.
Concept €e.$i¥.Ah’s Vision, pronounced /ɪ ‘zaɪ əs ‘vɪʒən/, is an electronic work for performance over eight speakers (octophonic) or stereo. It offers a critique of the current neoliberal establishment, which became the dominant economic, social and political force in the planet during the last fifty years. Correspondingly, the name €e.$i¥.Ah is a ‘monetised’ transformation of the name Isaiah. In a contemporary world where information is overabundant, manufacturing of consent is unprecedently sophisticated, and authoritative messages often conceal lack of substance or evidence, a critique articulated by means of an artwork must overcome new challenges if it is to avoid becoming mere unsubstantiated form. In this context, the conception in €e.$i¥.Ah’s Vision aims to articulate the affective power of music without sacrificing content and to present a coherent formulation of its critique through this affective power. It also aims to transcend such critique by introducing viable ideas for alternatives to the neoliberal order that may help us overcome the faults and instabilities generated by the latter and prevent further deterioration.
Content In order to encourage the listener to assume a detached view of the state of our present world, €e.$i¥.Ah’s Vision is set in the future, when interstellar archaeologists arrive to an unnamed planet in a remote corner of a distant galaxy (see programme notes below). As they endeavour to discover the history of the planet, the archaeologists come across two ancient digital media sources: The Vision of €e.$i¥.Ah and the eCo.Helet Collective Dialogues. Together, these findings offer the archaeologists a picture of the planet’s state nearly nine millennia before their arrival and help them understand its present. The Vision of €e.$i¥.Ah exposed and documented the cosmology of a small sect of believers who were able to acquire immense power over the planet. Alluding to Isaiah, the Old testament prophet, The Vision of €e.$i¥.Ah’s religious connotations relate to the neoliberal quasifundamentalist belief in a godlike market which is supposed to solve all our existential problems. In this context, it is used as metaphor to articulate the music’s affective power in the first part of the musical piece: the texts used are assembled as parts of musical phrases; for example, as words of an electronic dance of war (see EWM below) or as words of gospel preached by intelligent artificial beings in a sanitised utopic environment (see They Shall Beat their Plunder into Shares below). The Vision of €e.$i¥.Ah consists of five sections:
Hear, O Heavens, O earth – an invocation of the vision of €e.$i¥.Ah amidst a background of environmental destruction.
The Test – nonsensical text that illustrates lack of content in a political leader’s speech.
The Strong and the Weak – elaborates on the maxim ‘the strong do as they wish and the weak suffer as they must’ attributed to Thucydides (fourth-century BC).
They Shall Beat their Plunder into Shares – intelligent artificial beings2 preach from the gospel of €e.$i¥.Ah in a sanitised utopic environment. The text consists of modifications of the Old Testament book of Isaiah. For example, Isaiah’s ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks’ becomes ‘They shall beat their plunder into shares, and their loans into pruning hooks’. As this section develops, the artificial beings end up sounding more “human’ than actual samples of real people.
EWM (Electronic War Music) – free market eulogists participate in an electronic dance piece made of war sounds.
The title of the second part of €e.$i¥.Ah’s Vision, eCo.Helet Collective Dialogues takes its name from a hybrid between ‘eco’ (ecologic, economic, ecosystems, etc.) and the Old testament book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), and focuses on the explicit arguments of the critique. While affective power still plays a role throughout its sections, the words articulated by various contemporary thinkers take centre stage. Together, the many voices form a single narrative achieved by the collective contributions of each of the individuals. This contrasts the role of the uncoordinated voices that feature in EWM (Electronic War Music), countering neoliberal individualism with the synergy achieved by means of collective action. The eCo.Helet Collective Dialogues consist of three sections:
This is the Vision – a textual critique of €e.$i¥.Ah’s neoliberal capitalist vision
We Have Collective Power – the formulation of an alternative social, political, and ecologic cosmology, achievable by means of collective action.
A Portal – a short epilogue of hope.
€e.$i¥.Ah’s Vision is not intended to provide a prediction. It does not attempt to estimate the fate of neoliberalism and whether it will be replaced by the alternative vision it proposes or by something completely different (e.g. extreme forms of neo-feudalist power based on the exclusive possession of data, or power by control over automation, etc.). It rather aims to instigate discussion in wider public circles than those of social and political scientists, economists, philosophers and other intellectuals. It is intended to foment reflection on our current pressing existential problems (inequality, environmental extinction, nuclear holocaust, etc.). For these reasons, it never reveals the state in which the archaeologists found the planet. The latter’s fate is left unclear, in an effort to let the listeners decide on the nature of our actual planet’s present and infer its possible future … and if they deem it necessary, to take appropriate action!
Genre and Style €e.$i¥.Ah’s Vision is an musical work for loudspeakers. Given its scope and content, it incorporates the articulation of materials from different genres. For instance, but not exclusively, it incorporates components from genres such as electroacoustic (e.g. The Strong and the Weak, etc.), radiophonic (e.g. We Have Collective Power), dance music (e.g. EDM) and postdigital (e.g. The Test). These are adapted to fit within a coherent musical narrative.
Realisation Performance using a circle of eight speakers enables the realisation of an immersive experience for the listeners. Ideally, multi-speaker sound systems assume a listener sitting at the sweet spot in the centre of a circle. However, this is not possible for every member of a large audience; especially in concert venues where the listeners are dispersed around the centre. Also, in the case of larger spaces where the speakers are relatively far from the centre of the circle, a ‘hole’ is perceived, with sounds appearing to come from the periphery.
In order to mitigate these issues, two strategies were used in the realisation of €e.$i¥.Ah’s Vision. Firstly, the material is composed purposefully to avoid the need to pinpoint accurate sound location. Rather, the spatial distribution of the sounds focuses on their relative positions and actual movement; their spatial counterpoint. Secondly, the effects of large venues with dispersed audiences were also mitigated using panning algorithms developed by the composer. These forfeit the flexibility in speaker positioning of systems such as Vector Base Amplitude Panning (VBAP)3 and higher order ambisonics4 in favour of an approach that involves a wider cross-section of interlinked speakers. This means that the speakers should be positioned approximately within the current conventions used worldwide for octophonic sound projection. Also, the algorithms implement additional auditory cues for moving sound in the form Doppler Shift calculated with respect to the position of a listener relative to the speakers.
An economy is a system of production and consumption activities connected via allocation mechanisms. Simply, it is how people produce items and services that other people later consume. Economies are also inextricably entwined with the wider spheres of life bearing on political, communal, kinship, and ecological relations. For those who dislike or even detest capitalism and all of its societal effects, what better economy can we seek? Is there a better alternative?
We propose the following set of five features, based on the values of self-management, equity, solidarity, diversity, and sustainability, as a foundational framework for a good economy for all, an economic vision known as participatory economics. This presentation is intentionally brief and should engender more questions than it gives answers. It should inspire further engagement towards an economic vision that seeks to achieve human fulfillment and wellbeing within ecological bounds.
Who Owns What?
In any economy, workers use equipment, resources, venues, and diverse skills and knowledge that have accumulated over years, decades, and centuries to produce items and services. In capitalism, these “means of production” are overwhelmingly owned by roughly two percent of the population. We call them capitalists. They include Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett. Capitalists are human, of course, but they occupy inhumane roles. Countless books, essays, videos, etc illuminate all the ways that private ownership of productive assets has been and continues to be destructive, so we will not elaborate on that here. Instead, we will move on from what we reject, to what we want. A worthy post-capitalist means of production should compose a Productive Commons, that no one owns but that people utilize, to produce outputs which they and others later consume. Inhumane economic roles and their associated outcomes should be replaced.
Capitalists currently decide workplace production. Without capitalists, who will run workplaces? Without Bezos, who will run Amazon? We propose, why not Amazon’s workers and consumers?
Who Decides What?
Where will workers gather to make decisions about what their workplaces and industries produce and about how workers, in teams and individually, do the producing? And where will consumers gather to make decisions about their personal consumption (shoes, ice cream…), their living unit consumption (couches, homes…), their neighborhood and city consumption (subways, schools…), and even their state and whole society consumption (pandemic prevention, highways…)?
We propose that sometimes people will make production decisions individually or in work teams. Sometimes people will make consumption decisions individually or in families or other local groups.
But what about larger scale decisions whether for workplaces or industries, or for neighborhoods, cities, or states?
People will need to make those decisions collectively as members of what we call “workers and consumers councils” and “federations of councils”.
To make their decisions, will workers and consumers use consensus, or majority rules, or some other method? And is it really all of them who will decide?
We propose, sometimes workers and consumers will use consensus, sometimes they will use one person one vote, majority rules, and sometimes they will use other means of deliberation, voting, and tallying.
Why not always use one preferred optimal way?
Because the councils exist to seek self management, by which we mean that all people should have a say in decisions in proportion as they are affected by them. The exact forms of deliberation, voting, and tallying that councils opt for regarding different decisions are just various tactics councils might choose so as to self manage.
Self management is best achieved in diverse contexts via diverse means. Workers and consumers are all affected by acts of production and consumption, but not all to the same extent in every situation. Therefore, all workers and consumers should have a say regarding outcomes, but at different times, in different places, and for different issues, sometimes decisions should be private, sometimes collective. When collective, sometimes one approach is best for attaining self management, while sometimes another approach is best – again, methods of deliberation, voting, and tallying are a set of tactics and tools for achieving self management. Different approaches can accommodate different impact on different participants. For example, at work, I decide what I wear, our work team decides our team’s internal operations, the whole workplace council decides overall policies.
Self managed councils are the second feature, after a productive commons, that we propose as a set of defining features for a good post capitalist economy.
Who Does What?
If workers and consumers are to decide economic procedures and outcomes, they will need to wisely consider diverse matters. If not, bad decisions will hurt everyone. What will ensure that workers and consumers are wise decision makers?
To start, what prevents everyone from being wise decision makers in diverse situations now? Partly, it is a lack of training before going into work in the first place. This would need to change. But there is another more revealing and instructive factor. All economies necessarily combine bunches of tasks into jobs that people do. But how do economies pick which tasks to bunch together into which jobs? That is where issues arise. In current workplaces we have what we call a hierarchical or “corporate division of labor.”
Utilizing the corporate division of labor, economies combine “empowering tasks” into one set of jobs such as high level manager, accountant, lawyer, professor, doctor, engineer, and so on. Simultaneously, economies combine “disempowering tasks” into another set of jobs such as factory assembler, short order cook, nursing home and hospital staff, automotive repair, delivery services, garbage collector, and so on. An economy’s empowering jobs convey to managers, accountants, and others who do them decision making skills, knowledge, access, confidence, ties to others, and readiness and energy essential to making workplace decisions. An economy’s disempowering jobs reduce the decision making skills, knowledge, access, confidence, ties to others, and readiness and energy essential to making workplace decisions of assemblers, drivers, and others who do them.
To prepare us for the corporate division of labor even before entering the workforce, our education provides what the economy needs. Our education prepares twenty percent of us to expect to fill coordinator roles, and prepares eighty percent of us to expect to take orders and endure boredom.
There is undeniably a fuzzy borderline, but we call employees who are made ready and willing decision-makers by their doing empowering jobs the “coordinator class”. We call employees who are distanced from and unprepared for decision-making by their doing disempowering jobs the “working class”. By virtue of their empowering circumstances, the former, roughly twenty percent, coordinators dominate the latter, roughly eighty percent, workers. The coordinators determine agendas, hash out policies, and determine outcomes. They give orders. The workers hear about outcomes and implement decisions others make. They follow orders. This dynamic can occur with the ruling capitalist class situated above both coordinators and workers, as happens in capitalism. It can also occur when the coordinator class occupies the top spot, due to capitalist ownership having been eliminated but the corporate division of labor having been maintained, as has happened in various iterations of twentieth century socialism.
Does this division of labor obstruct self management?
Yes, even with a productive commons and even with workers and consumers councils, if a new economy retains the familiar corporate division of labor, the composition of its jobs will preclude roughly eighty percent of employees from being prepared and ready to decide outcomes. A retained corporate division of labor will ensure that only twenty percent of employees decide outcomes. Under capitalism, this coordinator class resides between labor and capital. With capitalists gone, the corporate division of labor, as we have seen historically in twentieth century socialism (better named coordinatorism) and even in non-profit businesses inside capitalist economies, elevates the coordinator class to become a new ruling class.
Does that mean hope for self management for all is an unattainable dream? Does it mean that to have viable production and consumption, we must have a coordinator class above and a working class below? Coordinators empowered and enriched? Workers disempowered and impoverished? Is it inevitable that among humans, a few will order and the rest obey?
No. But it does mean that to get rid of class rule we not only have to eliminate private ownership to end rule by rich owners, we also have to eliminate the corporate division of labor to end rule by empowered coordinators. We need to complete our effort to eliminate systemically produced class division. In other words, to foster self management we must consider not just who owns what, but also who does what, in order to equitably empower all to participate in who decides what.
The intention seems admirable, but first and foremost we have to get stuff done. If eliminating the corporate division of labor means we self manage chaos and endure poverty, most people would rightly vote to maintain what we have.
Fair enough. And that means we need to get rid of the corporate division of labor but nonetheless produce and consume wiser and better. No chaos. No poverty. Our desire to eliminate class hierarchy means we have to get rid of a skewed distribution of empowering tasks. To achieve that, instead of having only about twenty percent of employees do all the empowering tasks, we propose to combine tasks into jobs so that every job is comparably empowering as all others. Each job has some empowering and some disempowering aspects in a balanced mix that roughly equalizes the empowerment effects of all jobs. These “balanced job complexes” remove the basis for there being coordinators above and workers below.
All workers and consumers make decisions in their councils. They are empowered to do so by prior training and by doing a fair share of empowering tasks. It sounds good, but is it viable? Won’t it underutilize surgeons, for example, by having them spend some time cleaning up? And can everyone who now cleans up do balanced work well?
Consider an example. If Joe can do thirty or more hours of surgery (or accounting, or managing, or whatever) but in his balanced job he could only do, say, fifteen or twenty hours of surgery (or accounting, or managing, or whatever) because he also has to do other less empowering tasks, then with such a proposed change, it is true that we would get less total worth of surgery output from Joe. More, one in five employees in current economies are like Joe, responsible for a monopoly of empowering tasks. So, if we would lose a percentage of valuable output from these folks, why change?
Because for the other four out of five employees, this change liberates their current unused potentials. This change liberates more than enough gain to offset the loss. Plus, and this is the primary motivation, with this change we also end class rule. We end robbing four fifths of employees of dignity and efficacy. We end elevating one fifth of employees above to dominate four fifths below. We get more overall productive potential and creative capacity from our society, and better still, we get more self management, a greater diversity of thought and practice, and more solidarity and dignity for all. This change results in a huge net benefit.
Still not sure if this is viable? What makes advocates of participatory economics believe the four fifths will have sufficient talents and capacities liberated by this job balancing, even with improved schooling, to offset potential losses due to others not fully exercising their talents due to their having to do some disempowering, as opposed to only empowering, tasks?
Fifty years ago, medical schools and law schools in the U.S. were overwhelmingly male and white. The common belief/rationale to explain that was that it was because women and people of color were unable to be productive doctors and lawyers. Someone hearing about the overwhelming white male preponderance could think: Others don’t become doctors or lawyers. Obvious explanation, others can’t heal the sick or practice law. That explanation would have indeed been correct for some people, because of course, not everyone is suited or inclined to be a doctor or lawyer. But there was another, better explanation. People of color and women, writ large, didn’t become doctors, lawyers, scientists, managers, and so on, not because of some kind of underlying intrinsic incapacity, but because social arrangements reduced and denied their capacities, as well as excluded them. Everyone should have easily discerned that was the case, yet many, indeed most, did not discern it was the case. Even many (of the few) people of color and female doctors and lawyers, much less most of the great many white male doctors, lawyers, scientists, and managers often thought the issue was capacity, not subjugation. What prevented many people from seeing what should have been obvious? Pervasive sexism and racism.
Flash forward fifty years, working class people do not do empowering jobs. Someone might say, Jim or Sue can’t do surgery or write a legal brief because workers can’t do empowering tasks. In our society, about 80% of the population is channelled, often by home life, certainly by training, and then on the job, to take orders and endure boredom. Just as progress towards overcoming racism and sexism has led to people of color and women thriving as lawyers, doctors and in diverse empowering pursuits, so will overcoming what we might reasonably call classism lead to the 80% becoming more than able to do their share of empowering tasks in balanced jobs.
Therefore, we propose balanced job complexes as the third feature of a desirable post-capitalist economy. Yes, we will lose some productivity and innovation that we could have gotten from 20% of employees doing only empowering tasks. On the other hand, we will gain classlessness and all the dignity and solidarity that will mean. And we will also gain the productivity, diversity, and innovation freed by 80% of employees developing and utilizing their capacities rather than succumbing to the dictates of a corporate division of labor.