Rob O’ Grady explains why none of the existing large-scale systems —be they capitalist or communist— would work. For a community to function well, it must resolve conflicts as they arise. It can only operate if we personally know every other person. This limits the maximum size of the community to Dunbar’s Number—around 150 individuals.
Capitalism comes with a potpourri of sweet-scented prefixes, all of which presume that there is something wrong with capitalism per se. There are some other prefixes we commonly hear—crony capitalism and unbridled capitalism—that suggest that we aren’t doing it right.
Perhaps it is Goldilocks capitalism we need? Not too mean, with just the right amount of good will and charity, a measured dose of state regulation, a safety net – not too big and not too small, and the rest left to the free market?
Or is capitalism just capitalism in the context of people being people? The system swings between the poles of libertarianism and social democracy according to the changing tides of voter opinion. Some capitalists have more feeling for their fellow humans than others, while there are always greedy, selfish sorts lurking to do one over the rest of us, and certain trends are inevitable according to the incentive structure inherent in the system.
It is this last point, that outcomes tend to be inevitable according to the incentive structure operating, that serves as the starting point for a book I have recently written, titled 150 Strong: A Pathway to a Different Future, published by ClubOrlov Press. Over the coming weeks it will be serialised on Renegade Inc, with extracts presented.
On the topic of incentives, the book begins with an Author’s Note:
This book began as a response to the use of the word “sustainability,” a concept I became connected to through my training in sustainability engineering: the design and incorporation of environmentally-friendly practices into commerce and industry. It is based on principles such as these:
- When one cuts down a tree, plant a new one.
- We should try to use the waste from one process as a resource for another.
- Polluters should bear the costs of their actions.
All of these seem like good and logical ideas. But there is a rather significant problem in attempting to work in this way, because the greater context in which such efforts are currently being made reduces them to a farce: our current system of economics, which encourages short term accumulation of financial profit, is fundamentally incompatible with sustainability. This, to use a colorful colloquialism, makes such efforts akin to “farting against thunder.”
That is not to say that profit is inherently a negative thing. The creation of a financial surplus, in its most earnest expression, could be equated with prudent and efficient house-holding. But if nature is to serve as our model, then we can see something of how our current approach to profit has become problematic.
The accumulation of a surplus is a natural process: a plant accumulates surplus energy and nutrients to be able to bear fruit; a polar bear accumulates a surplus in the form of body fat which enables it to survive the winter; and our hunter-gatherer ancestors collected a surplus of food so that they would be able to survive in lean times. But in the monomaniacal pursuit of profit that we are engaged in at present, there is little that is natural about it, little sensitivity to the intricacies of the environmental and social systems that sustain us.
The reason for this can be deduced from a simple formula:
Profit = Income – Expenses
From which we can see that the profit motive and the “sustainability motive” are diametrically opposed: If sustainability initiatives were to truly succeed beyond the narrow realms of such things as waste minimization and embracing new technology, they would result in less income (due to reduced consumption) and more expenses (due to the cost of mitigation measures) leading to lower profits.
This inverse relationship between profit and sustainability is hugely important, and it is the proper starting point in any effort to confront our large-scale environmental problems. Yet it is almost universally ignored in official circles, and political efforts to address sustainability issues give it almost no coverage.
In our current way of doing things, the conflict between profit and sustainability is resolved through regulation, where all must comply with certain rules that hurt profitability a little bit but avoid worse damage. And, indeed, this approach has produced many good outcomes: the air is cleaner in Los Angeles, the fish are returning to River Thames, and many large areas of undeveloped land have been protected as national parks. But, for many reasons, it is an approach that is flawed: it doesn’t handle complexity well; it breaks down when there are different laws in different countries; and it only works when there is a social context in which the law is supported and enforced.
As soon as one tries to address these problems, sustainability becomes an unapproachable subject: to address it at the big-picture level one has to address the underlying economic and social context, but that is something of a taboo. Nevertheless, there is some mainstream discussion opening up on this topic, including some positive response to Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), and increasingly, it seems, the need to consider alternatives to our current system is being recognized.
The main message of the book is that we are blind to the significance of the reconciling force of our current system, which happens to be inherently negative, and that it is only by understanding this that we might have some chance of finding a better way of doing things, for anything else would be but tinkering around the edges.
In seeking to provide a bridge to something better, a very successful and proven system that operates with an alternative, positive reconciling force is examined. It is based on Dunbar’s number, which originates in evolutionary biology and proposes and upper limit to the number of people that humans can maintain effective social relationships with, which is approximately 150 people.
If you wish to read the book in full, it is available on Amazon.
Rob O’Grady is a Renegade Inc. contributor.
Note from Club Orlov Press publisher Dmitry Orlov
I am very happy to announce that another Club Orlov Press title, on which Rob and I worked for most of a year, is finally available. Its cover doesn’t lie: this book does provide a pathway to a different future—and, in my estimation, a better one.It is the happy end of a longish story.
In early 2013 I was invited to speak at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. It is a school that teaches a wide variety of native and folk arts, from building canoes to baking bread. One of the things that this school does rather well is teach people how to become part of the community that has grown up around the school. This had been happening spontaneously for some time, and it was thought that a conscious effort in this direction would produce even better results. And so, I was invited to address this topic in a seminar.
This was a new topic for me, and so I spent a few weeks at the library researching small communities that have stood the test of time. I looked at a great many of them: religious communities, such as the Anabaptists—the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites, as well as the Mormons in Utah and the Dukhobors in British Columbia; secular ones, such as the Kibbutzim in Israel; ethnically defined ones such as the Roma (also called Gypsies) and the Pashtun tribesmen of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
My criteria were simple: I looked at small communities that had stood the test of time—a century at least, ideally longer. What I was looking for was not their particulars (although I found them engrossing) but their commonalities. This was as diverse a set as could be imagined, defying any attempt to categorize: religious and secular, liberal and conservative, settled and nomadic, pacifist and warlike, isolationist and cosmopolitan, with different and similar roles for men and women, with and without private property, with and without a formal authority, with and without written law, democratic and authoritarian… and yet in spite of all these differences a consistent picture emerged: all of them exhibited a certain set of common traits.
Amazed by my discoveries, I presented my findings, first at the North House Folk School, and a few weeks later at the “Age of Limits” Conference at the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. While the audience at the school was very receptive and attentive, and used my presentation to jump-start a very serious set of discussions, the audience at the conference rose up in rebellion. You see, none of the communities I described as exemplifying the common set of successful traits was acceptable to every part of the audience: they were either too much of one thing, or too little of something else.
A particular sticking point was the lack of gender equality in almost all of them (the Kibbutzim were the one exception). Their lack of gender equality is not the least bit surprising, given that most of these communities were founded (and became set in their ways) a long time ago—which was the reason I thought they were worth a look. Back then “gender” was strictly a grammatical term, while the ideal of égalité was yet to be proclaimed by the French revolutionaries. Nevertheless, I was loudly criticized for holding up such retrograde communities as examples.
Since I was not interested in specifics and peculiarities, but in generalities and commonalities, I put this criticism down to certain people’s inability to see the forest for the trees, and went on to publish a collection of articles on the topic, titled Communities that Abide. In it I laid out my case, supplemented by a number of articles along similar lines by some quite illustrious contributors. In it, I distilled the set of traits that I thought were responsible for the ability of these communities to abide to “thirteen commandments,” which I playfully cast in the same form as the commandments of Pastafarianism, a.k.a. the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster: “You probably shouldn’t…” in place of “Thou shalt not…”
Although Communities that Abide sold out the initial print run and has continued to sell quite well ever since, it has left something to be desired. It’s an interesting little book, but as an organizational tool it has turned out to be quite useless. You see, it’s not just a matter of not seeing the forest for the trees—it’s more a question of there being a forest in place of an open meadow. What’s needed is not a set of recommendations (or commandments, however playfully expressed) but a set of first principles. People want to be able to think things through on their own, and come up with their own recommendations. People don’t want to just apply a recipe, no matter how scrupulously and impartially it was formulated.
And now… the happy ending. Into the breach steps Rob O’Grady. He had read and was inspired by Communities that Abide, as had many others, but what he then did with it was nontrivial and unique. He took the basic message of Communities that Abide, stripped it of every bit of extraneous detail, and then built up the case from the ground up, based on first principles.
He explains the urgency with which society needs to be reorganized should we wish to leave to our children a pleasant and survivable world. He explains why none of the existing large-scale systems of social control—be they capitalist or communist—would work. He lays out the basic requirements that must be fulfilled in order for a community to function well. He explains the basic principle—the reconciling principle—which can resolve conflicts as they arise. This principle cannot be based on selfishness (a.k.a. the profit motive). Also, it cannot be impersonal: it can only operate if we personally know every other person. This limits the maximum size of the community to Dunbar’s Number—around 150 individuals.
Rob manages to do all this without introducing any cultural, religious or ideological specifics. His text is so ecumenical that it is not even specifically Christian—or based on any other religion, other than a spiritual bond with our living planet—the only one we will ever know—that is universally human. His writing appeals not to any culture, class, tribe, group or party, but directly to human nature.
These are weighty matters, but Rob’s book is not a scientific treatise on the problematics of social organization: it is a textbook suitable for an introductory course. But it is also a guide that contains a call to action; not any specific set of actions—that is left entirely up to you—but perfectly general action that will bring you together with the 150 people who are closest to you in a way that will make each one of us 150-strong.