What counts as progressive change?

Monday, 16 December 2013 at 03:01
That is true culture which helps us to work for the social betterment of all.” - Henry Ward Beecher

If there is to be some change in how we live together on this planet, what could be generally accepted as being an improvement? Discussions on this subject often jump straight to strategies or policies, whether they call for reform or revolution, without being explicit about what those steps are really aiming to achieve, or why some stated ideals are to be pursued, or just assume that it is already clear. This sets up confusions and challenges in uniting over common causes. If a more fundamental and specific idea of collective 'progress' can be agreed on, then that creates a foundation from which principles, strategies and momentum can be built. It may also give us an insight into how some of our collective problems have arisen.

A typical dictionary definition of progress is along the lines of: “development towards an improved or more advanced condition”. From a human perspective then, an improved or more advanced condition is one with greater well-being and fulfilment. It could be said that what leads to well-being and fulfilment is where our needs are met. So then we can say that progressive social change is created by finding more efficient, effective and sustainable ways of meeting people's needs within a social collective.

But what exactly counts as a 'need'? Needs can be variously categorised, but essentially they are a resource, a value, or a state of being or relating, with which life is enriched or made possible, and without which life is impoverished or made impossible. A need is distinct from a desire, or a strategy for satisfying an underlying need. For instance you might want a shiny car or platinum credit card, when your need is for freedom, respect and joy. Or you may want a hot fudge cake or extra pork pie when your need is for nurture, food, warmth or affection. There are infinite wants and potential strategies that can be rooted in a need, and naturally some of those strategies do a better or longer lasting job than others at meeting the underlying need(s). It has been shown by Max-Neef (1989), Rosenberg (2003), Tay & Diener (2011) and others that people of all cultures have a common pool of needs. While the exact terms and emphases may differ between researchers and cultures, that shared pool of human needs spans such interrelated and non-exhaustive categories as:

Subsistence (physical health, rest, food, shelter),
Safety (protection, security, stability),
Affection (connection, love, intimacy, touch),
Nurture (care, support, giving),
Identity (sense of place, respect, integrity, authenticity, self-expression),
Purpose (significance, contribution, meaning),
Participation (belonging, fellowship, appreciation),
Leisure (relaxation, peace, calm, harmony),
Understanding (clarity, certainty, trust, knowledge, mastery),
Change (creation, variety, adventure, challenge, growth),
Freedom (choice, independence),
Joy (play, humour, celebration).

Were a way to live together found, that helped to more efficiently, effectively and sustainably meet such needs, then that way would be described as 'progressive social change' (and were it to be to the general detriment of such needs, then it would be 'regressive social change').

This particular clarification of the concept of 'progress' does three things. It includes everyone equally, while avoiding any argument of political ideology (apart from those that explicitly don't include everyone). It includes through many of the needs listed, key qualities of relationships, which as social animals are crucial to our greater well-being and fulfilment. It offers a way to measure success and identity specific areas for improvement.

Some recent metrics of progress or development such as the HDI (Human Development Index), HPI (Happy Planet Index) and SLI (Satisfaction with Life Index), integrate non-economic growth measures to varying degrees, including elements like life expectancy, education, inequality, child mortality, and carbon footprint. The HPI and SLI also account for well-being, which relates obviously to the common pool of human needs. Gallup produce detailed global metrics on experienced well-being, used in the HPI. You can explore how different countries rank on various development related metrics using a tool on the United Nations Development Program website.

But it is the financial measure of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), or the similar GNP, that is still used by most countries today as the prime measure of progress. GDP is the total market value of all goods and services produced in an economy in one year. If the GDP is growing at somewhere around 3% then politicians and industry are happy, but otherwise no mountain is too big to move (or remove) to get the economy back on track and growing again.

There are many problems with this picture of progress. It is not inherently inclusive, and in fact, market mechanisms mean that it is rather exclusive, it does not directly relate to the quality of relationships and connected human needs, and it is fundamentally unsustainable on a finite planet.

A growing body of research, see for instance Easterlin (2003), Dutt & Radcliff (2009), Easterbrook (2005), in the field of 'happiness economics' shows that after secure subsistence level is reached, increased GDP per capita produces exponentially diminishing benefits in life satisfaction, at best. The Equality Trust have also shown that higher inequality in income within a population results in diminished well-being, health and safety for everyone in that population, poor and rich – even where basic material needs were satisfied. Inequality also reduces the potential for innovation. In other words, inequality is measurably anti-progress. Now when an economy grows, and GDP increases, those already with the most wealth tend to get most of that growth, because private property creates cumulative competitive advantage. Therefore, inequality will tend to increase along with the GDP, if left to market mechanisms alone.
Robert F. Kennedy said it well in 1968:

Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

So if the growing market-economy picture of progress and human development is so obviously flawed, why is GDP growth such a paramount and pressing goal of government and media pundits?

Just letting that question sit for a moment leads to a morbid realization. That the governments of the world, those institutions in charge of maintaining our ways of co-existing and protecting the public interest have, for a very long time, for a large part been pursuing a policy starkly at odds with progressive social change. That makes them part of the problem.

But not that the problem stops with government, or that this is a criticism of all those who work in government with good civic intent, or of the essential administrative and planning services it provides. It is a criticism though of the strong, entrenched and arguably fundamental alignment government has as an institution with the regressive ideology of pursuing market-economy growth (and the protection of concentrated wealth) above practically all else. Even in the planned economies of 20th century totalitarian 'socialist' states, a similar reverence for market economics was seen. In fact, despite vast human cost, inequality and chronic inefficiencies, due to heavy industrialization and cheap labour the rate of GDP growth for the USSR, between 1929 and 1973 significantly outstripped that of the USA and most of Europe (Broadberry & Klein 2011).

What could possibly be maintaining this program then? There must be some needs that are met by the market-economy growth picture of progress. Indeed there are, and having more money does make it somewhat easier to meet them. Defenders of this predominant program would also argue that ultimately it is about better meeting needs, such as giving people more freedom, choice and opportunities, better health and all the rest. In fact, the United Nations Development Program describe their aim as 'to contribute towards the expansion of opportunities, choice and freedom'.

The trouble is with the strategies used to pursue our common needs, and the supporting myths that have built up around those strategies. It is those that lead to the insatiable pursuit of GDP. The core strategy is market-economics – the trade, recognition and protection of private property as the primary means of cooperative production and service provision. The myths are numerous, covering skewed interpretations of natural selection, rationalising entitlement, poverty and war, claiming credit for spurring human innovation, talk of the efficiency of markets, making a case for systematic coercion, pinning it all on the base nature of man, and asserting that of a set of bad options, this is the least bad. These and more are addressed specifically in a later section.

Underpinning both strategy and myth is a certain way of thinking and relating to the world, characterized by a strong emphasis on competition, securing and controlling physical resources, elevated stress or aggression and short-term planning. This could be summed up as 'threat-focused' thinking. Although a useful part of our nature, due to recent developments in human history, the threat-focused mentality has grown out of balance with other elements of our nature.

As a species we are still struggling to adjust to our ability to amass wealth. Before the innovation of agriculture at least 10,000 years ago (Wadley & Martin 1993), it was not possible to do this on a large scale. After this pivotal invention came cities and the accelerated development of technology and language. Along with that, social class and slavery, landlords, conquerors, kings, emperors and associated entourage, institutionalized religion, banking and eventually modern forms of government emerged and spread, all enabled by extending the concept of private property beyond direct personal production, and backed up by force. Due to the potential spoils and resource requirements in higher population densities, and the related vulnerabilities of being in a settled location, warfare spread alongside economic growth. Thus empire building, whether through battleships and bombs or extortionate IMF loans, is also associated with the establishment picture of 'progress'.

The ability to amass and concentrate wealth certainly bought with it great benefits, but also the metastasizing of greed. The ability to accumulate wealth amplifies competitive advantage, creates and reinforces hierarchy and assists in meeting all the basic physical needs, as well as tying in with those connected to freedom, security, identity and leisure. So there are some clear incentives. It is also widely thought by historians that the health, nutrition, work-to-leisure ratio and longevity of most people under agricultural civilization was actually inferior to their hunter-gatherer brethren, until well into the 20th century (Hayden 1990, Cohen 1977, 1989, Lee & Devore 1968, Gurven & Kaplan 2007) – so around 10,000 years of being worse off for the majority, and when it comes to work-to-leisure and nutrition, still counting. All of which is convenient, because if you have managed to accumulate some wealth it can put you in a position of being able to charitably help those in need, gaining you a warm feeling and additional status. Thus, all in all there are strong drives for accumulating ever more wealth – which requires ever more resources, regardless of how well our common needs might be met minus the acquisitive urge. This is why the threat-focused picture of progress is so at odds with the ecological balance of our planet.

To a degree, social codes and a common instinct for sharing will act to keep personal accumulation in check. But there comes a point where the power of the wealth (supported by a common acceptance of the idea of private property), in its struggle, begins to outweigh the power of those social regulatory elements. It becomes clear then that to protect and advance the personal benefits of amassed wealth a continual competition and controlled cooperation must be engaged in – alongside whatever compromises are necessary to maintain favourable conditions for keeping that private wealth. In other words amassing wealth is an exercise in managing and avoiding threat, and so the threat-focused way of thinking becomes engrained as the norm. From this point 'progress' becomes bound to the acquisitive, controlling and conflict prone drive. In that respect, no part of society is left behind, from the individual's sense of identity and self-worth relating to what they 'own' or 'earn', to the violence saturated media that is presented as entertainment, to rigidly hierarchical family relationships, to the division of social class and the – to this day still popular and practised – sin of human slavery. In this way we have lost the more empathic, egalitarian and by necessity collaborative culture, characteristic of our longer nomadic hunter-gatherer history.

From a habituated threat-focused outlook naturally develops a certain kind of narrative, one marked by dichotomies. These may serve a purpose in dealing with an immanent and grave threat, but when applied to everyday life, as the emergency-measure plan making apparatus they are, serve us poorly and lead us to bring about our own prejudgements of the world. It is a narrative of friends and enemies, 'good guys' and 'bad guys', “if you're not with us you're against us”, “it's the market or mud huts”, selfishness verses altruism, freedom verses security, and prosperity as being largely a zero-sum game. These are false dichotomies, but they take on a reality through our believing and acting on them. From that world-view the recognition and protection of private property is the very foundation of civilization, and the winning of profit the surest sign of progress. Furthermore, great inequality is inevitable and desirable as it is a driver of aspiration and productive competition. And most of all, there is and can be 'no other way'.

So you can see how the current mainstream concept of progress might be hard to shift. Of course, it is not quite that black and white, because that large part of human nature outside the domain of threat-focused thinking and greed, is still very much with us, if slightly pushed into a corner. People generally do care about their friends, family and strangers, are happy to work as equals with others, are often willing to share to help others in need, do commonly invest time and energy in activities without financial reward which benefit their communities. They are also often interested in finding more peaceful and equitable ways of co-existing, of more effectively and sustainably utilizing resources and spreading the benefits of technology more widely. This part of human nature and outlook, lets call it 'collaboration-focused' is why there is any hope at all. But it is also why a threat-focus dominated socioeconomic system can even exist, because without the free services our natural collaboration-focused behaviour provides, such a system would soon collapse.

The human mind being the flexible thing that it is though can hold these two diverging outlooks and accompanying narratives together, operate according to both and find ways of avoiding the cognitive dissonance. But it is getting harder to maintain the incongruence because information and progressive ideas are spreading faster, which is also why there is hope.

The beginning of this section set out to get to the root of the idea of 'progress' and associated aims. The establishment (mainstream 'left' or 'right' politics) picture of progress as economic growth and the perpetuation of the market economy at the heart of society is certainly connected to meeting underlying human needs. But it is also intrinsically bound to the threat-focused element of our nature and the protection of concentrated private wealth. That picture and its pursuit has been shown to be an obstructing force against a more comprehensive and widely enjoyed meeting of shared human needs. There are some encouraging signs of change within elected government, including greater transparency and public involvement in decision making. Indeed the bare admission of a vote is a sign of progress in itself. But it is a constant battle and essentially the core establishment program remains intact throughout the world.

Some people have taken more strident steps. Bergmann (2013) presents a fascinating history of the trials and tribulations of the forming of a new 'crowd sourced' constitution for Iceland – the country that let the banks go bust following the financial collapse in 2008. The new highly progressive constitution approved by the public with a two thirds majority in 2012 still awaits ratification by parliament. The left wing government at the time dragged its feet particularly over the clause of making natural resources publicly owned. Now more recent right wing government manoeuvrings have put in place laws that make the popular constitution's official adoption rather unlikely. This recent history is a clear example of the nature of government as a protector of privately controlled wealth above the common will. But it also shows through the subsequent election of a party who were against the new constitution from the beginning, how some part of the public share similar establishment values and beliefs about 'progress'. Nevertheless, the extensive involvement of the public in the process of forming the draft constitution is a significant precedent.

Another encouraging indication of a collaboration-focused shift in the concept of progress is the forthcoming Swiss vote on an unconditional basic income, not for bare subsistence, but for a figure more in line with median income. There is a related ongoing initiative to develop the idea of unconditional basic income through the European Union.

In more fraught circumstances are the popular uprisings in the Middle East, against the totalitarian regimes in power there, in response to oppression, common human rights violations and increasing economic struggle for the majority. Since 2010, the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have been forced from power, with uprisings and major protests in other countries throughout the region. This is an example of how widespread access to instant communication can enable popular movements to grow and affect change despite the efforts of authorities to suppress them.

From the business world, even though the incidence of psychopathy amongst CEOs is estimated to be 4 times greater than in the general population (Ronson 2011), there are also encouraging shifts in the concept of progress. Notwithstanding the nature of business being to make a profit, an increasing number of corporations are exploring giving more autonomy to employees, reframing management as a facilitating rather than commanding role, focusing on increasing intrinsic motivators of work and personal development for employees over the extrinsic motivator of money, and taking somewhat seriously the idea of social responsibility. The International Institute of Management is even hosting a survey of 'Gross National Happiness' (based on the measure used by Bhutan), and offering entrants a chance to win a free ticket to their conference in Las Vegas. Of course, there is a very long way to go.

Without getting into the specifics of some ideas for progressive change just yet, or the challenges and possible strategies involved in making a transition, it is clear that a more collaborative, less threat-focused way of co-existing is called for. The longer it takes us to escape the threat-focused miasma, the darker our future becomes.

By focusing more on a collective, shared-needs based understanding of progress, 'progress' will really mean progress for everyone, and the collaboration-focused element of our nature may again flourish, with potentially staggering benefits.

Bergmann, E. (2013) Reconstituting Iceland – constitutional reform caught in a new critical order in the wake of crisis Political Legitimacy and the Paradox of Regulation
Broadberry, S. & Klein, A. (2012) Aggregate and per capita GDP in Europe, 1870-2000: continental, regional and national data with changing boundaries Scandinavian Economic History Review, 60, 79-107
Cohen & N., M. (1977) Reed; A., C. (Eds.) Population pressure and the origins of agriculture: an archaeological example from the coast of Peru, The origins of agriculture, Mouton, 135-177
Cohen & N., M. (1989) Health and the rise of civilization Yale University Press
Dutt, A. K. & Radcliff, B. (2009) Happiness, Economics And Politics - Towards a Multi-Disciplinary Approach Edward Elgar Publishing
Easterbrook, G. (2005 Jan) Money: The Real Truth About Money, TIMES Magazine
Easterlin, R. A. (2003) Explaining happiness Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100, 11176-11183
Gurven, M. & Kaplan, H. S. (2007) Longevity Among Hunter- Gatherers: A Cross-Cultural ExaminationPopulation and Development Review, 33, 321-365
Hayden, B. (1990) Nimrods, Piscators, Pluckers, and Planters: The Emergence of Food Production. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 9/1: 31-69
Lee, R. B. & Devore, I. (1968) Problems in the study of hunters and gatherers, in Man the Hunter Chicago: Aldine, pp. 3-12
Max-Neef, M. (1989) Human scale development: conception, application and further reflections Apex Press, 18
Ronson, J. (2011) The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry Picador
Rosenberg, M. (2003) Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life PuddleDancer Press
Stevenson, B. & Wolfers, J. (2008) Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox National Bureau of Economic Research
Tay, L. & Diener, E. (2011) Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the WorldJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 354-365
Wadley, G. & Martin, A. (1993) The origins of agriculture: a biological perspective and a new hypothesis Authralian Biologist, 6, 96-105

Dangerous Thinking and Violence

at 02:59

What it is that makes certain kinds of thinking dangerous, if not that it leads to some form of violence or threat of harm?

For an individual dangerous thinking could lead to injury or scarcity. Between individuals it could lead to violent conflict, or to the breakdown of a valuable and supportive relationship.

Regarding community, local or extended, dangerous thinking may conceivably result in harm through a loss of cohesion and effective cooperation, without immediate violence. But where trust, social bonds, and the empathy that goes with it diminish, so the chances of violence increase. Also without the presence or threat of violence, there is a common (although not universal) inclination towards cooperation.

Hence dangerous thinking, on an individual scale through to the extended community of a nation, is considered in terms of its relationship with violence. Here violence is taken as any act which is destructive and leads to suffering.

It goes without saying that not all danger, suffering or conflict can be avoided, and it is sometimes necessary to accept one danger in order to overcome a bigger danger, and thus not all 'dangerous thinking' is to be avoided. Nevertheless it is a common warning or accusation, particularly towards those interested in social reform who would rock the boat. It is useful then, for those cases where advocating or agitating for change turns out to be the lesser danger than staying on course, to understand in more detail how the idea of dangerous thinking and of violence is evoked, framed and influenced.

For the same reason of avoiding the bigger danger, it is useful to understand these the various dimensions and routes to dangerous thinking, for those cases where powerful movement for change fails to accurately comprehend both what is to be changed from and what is to be changed to, thus potentially itself representing the bigger danger.

Can some forms of violence be net reducers of dangerous thinking? Certain forms of mutual play, art or sport may have a violent and dangerous nature, but do they necessarily result in more harm than what would come without them. Perhaps qualifying activities would be those where violence is integrated into a narrative that also emphasizes respect, peace and honor, and is congruent with actual behaviour, and where violence is used in a controlled form to some extent to overcome its broader hold, and avoid it in worse forms? The study of many martial arts, for instance, would appear to fit such conditions.

This idea of dangerous thinking might be expanded into the violence related categories:
  • Thinking about acts of violence.
  • Thinking which justifies acts of violence.
  • Thinking which directly incites violence.
  • Thinking which is not itself of a violent nature but which is met with violence.
  • Thinking which leads to violence, but which does not require reflection on that fact.

Let's consider each of these types of dangerous thinking, what drives them and how our acceptance of and inclination to violence is influenced through them:

Thinking about acts of violence

In itself, just thinking about something violent happening isn't necessarily dangerous, it might even help you avoid danger, where you pre-empt it. Where it gets dangerous is where it becomes habituated, and begins to saturate large parts of our mental and emotional space. The route to that happening is naturally the mainstream media (including the political discourse of the main parties) and entertainment industries. Whether from high-volume violent content we react more with elevated fear or aggression, or become desensitized, the result is often an increased affinity for violence, or an acceptance of it as the inevitable norm. The exact nature of the violent content in the mainstream media and entertainment industries could be connected to any one or more of the above types of dangerous thinking, from gratuitously violent video games, to championing aggressive foreign policies, to reinforcing cultural or social prejudices which contribute to violent discrimination. Consequently, thinking about acts of violence, through the volume and tone of such content, acts as a bedrock for violence in society.

There is an argument sometimes offered, that the media and entertainment industry, and some would extend that to politics too, is primarily a mirror of the dominant culture (with various niches for those who wish to consume niche content) and that it does not significantly steer or shape that culture, or influence our thinking, choices and actions.

This idea of minor influence is not convincing in the face of the vast sums of money spent on content production with the precise aim of influencing opinions and behaviour. There is in fact a well recognised influence of media coverage on everything from election outcomes, to product sales, box office success and celebrity popularity. If people get the bulk of their information about what is happening in the world from the media (or from friends who have seen or heard something in the media), it would be reasonable to expect that any bias or assumptions presented through either emphasis or omission would be reflected in the public opinion, discourse and behaviour. The connection becomes pretty obvious during times of war and associated propaganda, but is no less real at all other times.

Similarly, it is fairly common for role models to be characters in a book, film or computer game. Even without their being an identified role model, where an entertainment product appeals to our taste, those appealing qualities are often attached to a certain narrative, ideology or set of interpretations of how the world is or should be. Just as showing young attractive people drinking Cola Cola seems to have an impact on behaviour to increase sales (since it's such a long running ad strategy), we could expect having those qualities in an entertainment product that appeal to our taste, being linked with certain ideologies or views of the world would, to some extent, over time, influence our affinity with those views and ideologies. Also the choice and presentation of products available will itself have an influence on what tastes develop, as well as tastes influencing what is made available.

This capacity for influence from the media and entertainment industries will be exercised essentially whenever there is profit in doing so, which given the market based operation of our economy, is all the time. From a profit seeking perspective, violence is simply one powerful emotional lever to stimulate demand with, through fear, relief or arousal, or to secure general compliance with various measures that protect and enhance profit for a tiny group of people.

Thinking which justifies acts of violence

Moving forward from simply contemplating some act of violence, is a train of thought which in some way justifies that violence, whether it has already been committed, is about to be, or could be at some future point. The justification of violence is generally related to a real or perceived threat, or an opportunity for gain.

The nature of the threat may be, for instance, to the body, the identity, or the integrity of a group, its social code or its hierarchy. Besides the neutralization of danger or scarcity, the gain from violence may be the expansion of already substantial wealth, or some entertainment value. Clearly the perception of the situation and the set of beliefs and values held are critical in having a sense of danger and in justifying violence to resolve that danger, or to acquire the benefit being considered.

As an example, supposing someone sees a group of travelers enter their town and set up camp. The town is under some economic pressure and public services are already near capacity. If that person's culture and outlook is one that welcomes such visitors and seeks to share knowledge and strengths then they may still perceive some challenges but focus on how to create good relations for cooperation or develop a peaceful understanding with them of the limits of local resources. But if that person's culture and outlook is more threat-focused and they believe such travelers can't be cooperated, trusted or reasoned with, then a strong sense of danger to the self and the town, at least in terms of identity and economy may develop and violence begin to be justified.

So one route to justifying violence is by having or creating the perception of necessity for self-defence or group defence. Here, what the self and group is defined by, in terms of body, identity, property, social code and class, determines what kind of situations may be considered threatening and possibly justifying violence. As already discussed, some part of what we, in general, take to define us and our place in the world, is served up by the media and entertainment industries and the culture which comes from and feeds into that.

Once a threat to self or group is perceived, the possible response of violence must be considered as the only way, the normal way, or the best of all options, for violence to then by justified.

Again, our culture, as influenced by mainstream media and entertainment, will affect where we see violence as an appropriate or necessary response, given some threat. For instance if patriotism, along with proactive military strength is held highly within the culture, then any perceived or possible threat to a nation may be understood individually as a justification for violence.

Another route to justifying violence, is for the significance of violence itself to diminish, and either to become so common as to be 'normal' or through a particular cultural landscape to become associated with entertainment. For most of post-agricultural history, violence has been a popular form of entertainment, for a certain part of the population.

The attraction to, acceptance of and justification for violence is evoked in media and entertainment, not just through its association with fear, power, status and sex, but also through such qualities as humour, hope and kindness. In action films highly graphic scenes of violence can be made light of, not only by their familiarity, but by adding an element of humour. Where violence is portrayed in a noble light, as the only path to freedom and justice, and thus the source of hope for those who are threatened and struggling (within the ideology and social constructs of the story) then it becomes justified. When violence is cast as the humane expression of tough love, to teach a valuable lesson through punishment, then violence may become justified.

Coming back to the framing of dangerous thinking as thinking that leads to or increases the chances of violence, all of the above avenues for thought to justify violence can be understood as dangerous thinking. In the case of justification three types have been identified:

Threat + violence is best or only option = justification.
Not much threat + violence is trivial, entertaining or in the form of play = justification.
Acceptable repercussions + sufficient benefits = justification.

The last type of justification above, requires that the doer of violence feels superior to the target, where violence is simply an expedient method for getting what is wanted. Such a sense of superiority develops most easily with a lack of empathy. Mental illness can certainly account for some of this, but one powerful, systematic way of creating a sense of superiority and a loss of empathy is political, economic and social hierarchy, or class. Thus a hierarchical approach to co-existence can be seen as an engine of violence and dangerous thinking, as much as it may appear from certain points within its own paradigm as a model of stability and order.

What makes that association between justifying violence and dangerous thinking seem odd, is where, within our beliefs, values and social codes, the violence (real or imagined) really is justified or unavoidable. At this point there seems to be no sense in considering the thinking of it 'dangerous', it is simply what is called for.

For any of the avenues to dangerous thinking above, examples could easily be found that by most reasonable and moderate standards, violence really would appear justified. But at least as many if not far more examples could be imagined where violence is only accepted or adopted because beliefs, values and desires have been manipulated to make violence feel justified or entertaining. The scope for such manipulation is arguably far greater in the presence of hierarchy, whether sectarian or non-sectarian, especially where access to and presentation of information is substantially controlled and filtered through the small head of that hierarchy.

Thinking which directly incites violence

Beyond justifying violence in theory or practice, is thinking which directly calls for it.
It may be down to desperation over scarcity or threat to safety, or a threat to power, which may itself be perceived as a type of scarcity of whatever circumstances are required to maintain an identity that has become bound to a position of power. Or it may simply come from an addiction to violence.

Where the violence is real there is generally a natural instinct to avoid it if possible. This means, especially where the violence is being incited from a hierarchical structure, the use of language is instrumental in bringing people to the point of doing violence. Euphemism and dehumanisation, where there are 'good guys' and 'bad guys', are common approaches. For instance, on the side of law and/or national interest, violence may be used in the name of liberty, security and peace. Where it is used outside of the agenda of the state and major stake holders, violence is the mark of terrorists. Similarly, within an abusive relationship, the abuser may use violence as a means of discipline and maintaining order. But where the abused tries to resist violently, it is a mark of disrespect and irrationality. The conceptual framework is key to allowing the violence to feel justified and to perpetuate.

When faced with desperate circumstances of scarcity or other threat, there quickly comes the time where action is imperative. While that might entail an unavoidable risk or need of violence, what increases the chances of it is where communication ceases or is severely degraded. If the sentiment 'the time for discussion is over' signals to stop considering or sharing information, perspectives and different strategies, while action is being made, then the violence fuelling characteristics of social hierarchies start to apply. Where there is a plan and a representative or leader of it, to which people are obedient, then the moral disengagement of 'just following orders' kicks in. The hierarchy need not be explicit, so long as the sharing of information and ideas is broadly shaped in the same way as under one, then the same follies are invited.

Where there is a fixed plan being followed and the bigger picture is held only by a few authoritative figures, then through the social disengagement and narrowing of perspective, violence becomes easier to incite. This effect is starkly proven by the Milgram experiment, where there is an authority figure and a set of rules and about two thirds of people are prepared to voluntarily kill a person who has done no harm that they know of, providing they are not in the same room, and without even being in a situation of extreme threat.

Another type of thinking that tends to spark violence is the type that seizes on the nearest possible scape goat to try and alleviate a danger. It is a natural enough response under the circumstances of elevated stress, anxiety and threat-focused competition, that most people in our dominant culture find themselves in. It is made more likely from a scarcity of sound information and rational discourse, and a strategy known as 'divide and conquer'.

It is not that those wishing to maintain privilege and power have to do that much to apply divide and conquer, because general circumstances lead to a narrowing and increasing immediacy of focus that makes finding a nearby person or group to blame and vent frustration and anger on more likely. If mainstream media for the most part avoid grappling with the bigger picture and fuel the fire of resentment of minority groups with divisive and sensationalized news coverage that is enough. What happens then is that the parts of society that might represent the biggest threat to establishment if they were organized and thinking in a joined-up way end up focusing on fighting each other and various minority groups. Thus by dividing the threat, is it conquered.

Some common examples of desperate blame seeking and divide and conquer are:
Immigrants vs. native blue collar workers.
'Hard working people' vs. benefit claimants.
Pitting pubic sector workers and their compensation against private sector workers and their compensation, indicating that one is suffering due to the privileges of the other.

In all these cases, real tensions and hardship exists. But it's by failing to pause, learn some facts and understand the bigger picture, that shows how these circumstances arise, that what may feel like a fight for freedom and security becomes tragically a fight which contributes most to the ongoing exploitation of everyone involved. Some vague idea of bigger injustices may be there, but they seem out of reach and hard to understand in a way that connects them to the immediate problems of a community. Better to leave understanding those things to someone else, and just taking a stand where you can, with your friends who see things the same way because they have the same problems. In this way a community ends up dividing itself and contributing to the systemic violence of the broader culture it belongs to.

Thinking which is not itself of a violent nature but which is met with violence

Thinking that either doesn't see an existing risk, or through its disruptive force, creates a risk, may be dangerous to all those influenced by it. If you think that you only need to look left when crossing any road, then you create the danger for yourself and others of violent outcomes.

More to the point of social order, where ideas are developed to peacefully transition to a different paradigm and those ideas begin to catch on, this presents various threats. If the new paradigm is non-hierarchical and the existing one is, or the new one otherwise puts them out of favour, then there is a threat to identity, power and social order, and through the means discussed violence may then be justified to neutralize the threat.

Of course such ideas which lie outside the mainstream are first dismissed as fringe nonsense or simply a joke. It is only where they gather substantial momentum and cohesive power that they represent a threat, and at that point there are often not directly violent ways of smothering or dividing the development, which are more effective than direct violence. Often competitively amplified economic pressure does the job of the establishment, dividing people between what has a broader social value and what must be done to make ends meet. Then there is infiltration (a well documented and used strategy of the police and intelligence agencies), bribery, blackmail, propaganda and smear campaigns.

On the other side, were a regime change (or annulment) carried out, there is the question of what comes after, and what dangers await in making that transition. If you and your tribe peacefully find your way out of a forest where you felt trapped and endangered, you might feel great being outside, but you wont last long unless you've prepared to live in the new environment. You may then be forced back into the forest, and find a new spot where you might find you're subject to new or greater dangers than you were before you left. In such a case, the violence you are met with is as much a result of a lack of preparation, as it is of the regime you return to and through your actions helped to create.

Another form of thinking that can be dangerous is the kind that starts with 'all we need is love and kindness' and 'you cannot change the world, you can only change yourself' and then goes nowhere. This is not because it is usually directly met with violence but because, on its own, it is fairly ineffectual at reducing ongoing systemic cultural violence. On its own, without building it into joined-up thinking and social organization, it merely serves as a personal pressure valve, a form of escapism, or a New Age equivalent to confessing sins. On its own it's easy for everyone to agree with, or at least nod sympathetically with, and then go about their usual business.

For this reason when public figures, such as the new Pope Francis Bergoglio, speak out against Capitalism or the dominant social, political and economic paradigm, media pundits often criticize their branching out from reciting doctrine or just talking in vague terms of love and forgiveness. The objection typically involves the claim that such people should restrict themselves to their allotted partition of public presence or celebrity; that if you're not a recognized expert on a subject then you have no business talking about it, or what you say carries no weight. It is the 'experts only' objection. In this way attempts to join the dots between numerous social issues and contribute to a wider conversation based on joined-up thinking are discouraged and suppressed.

Augmenting the 'all we need is love' and the 'experts only' thought silos, is the line of thinking: 'All that is ill in the world is simply a result of human nature. Besides what the authorities are trying to do to weed out the bad apples, and increasing punishment, control and surveillance, there is nothing than can be done. We just have to rely on evolution to slowly improve people.' What this does is effectively close off general public discourse relating to the large region of social structure and our economic and political institutions.

The structures we've made relating to social cooperation, managing resources and making collective decisions, that is our social, economic and political institutions, and the assumptions around them, are commonly regarded as facts of nature. They are less often regarded as fairly recent human inventions which have a very significant influence on behaviour and on which bits of our nature get developed more, and which bits remain relatively undeveloped. It is easily missed of minimized then, that the details of our dominant social, economic and political institutions have a huge impact on just about any social issue imaginable, not least violence.

This three-point ward of 'all we need is love, 'experts only' and 'it is just human nature' creates a gigantic cognitive blind-spot, which deflects attempts at joined-up thinking, or even seeing the need for it. In this way, these ostensibly non-violent habits of thinking contribute to the ongoing collective violence and danger arising from our present dominant paradigm of co-existence, because they obstruct or diffuse the kind of thinking that would be required to progress beyond that paradigm.

Thinking which leads to violence, but which does not require reflection on that fact

Returning to the influence of mainstream media, entertainment and politics, where certain narratives and ideologies are accepted from it, there may be no explicit awareness of doing anything out of the ordinary, but that very acceptance and agreement opens a channel through which violence flows. It's this kind of ideology buy-in (at least enough not to create mass resistance) that is relied upon for empire building activities and the persecution of chosen enemies within or outside of a society.

Where violence in terms of systemic exploitation and oppression of the disadvantaged occurs, supported by the authority structure, myths and values of a culture, this can be thought of as structural violence. Where those values and beliefs are accepted, structural violence creates little awareness or reflection, even where someone is directly participating in the violence themselves, because it exists within the scope of normality and what is justified.

Violence is more easily done where is some form of physical or social separation which impedes empathy, and physical and social separation is precisely what hierarchy leads to. But there is a particular form of violence, neglect, which is perhaps the most common form of structural violence.

As discussed in the first division of dangerous thinking, there are many ways that simply thinking of violence to the extent that our culture is saturated by it, increases the use of violence. Now here are some (there are many more) specific beliefs, trains of thought or narratives which lead to structural violence and are generally a part of a market lead democracy culture, and which do not need much reflection by those whose thinking is aligned with them:
  • Free-trade is good for everyone
  • The rule of the majority should be respected by all
  • The lawful amassing of private property reflects merit, and the absence of such wealth is equally deserved
  • Though freedom is the highest value, enshrined in free-market ideology, people must be ruled by government
  • For the majority, freedom must be traded for security, and security could always be better

The points on markets and private property are addressed in these notes:

On the point of democracy and the rule of the majority, John Adams, the second president of the United States, coined the term 'tyranny of the majority' to highlight the dangers of it, and defend the value of a bill of rights. The Greeks also recognized the problem, where a vote may legitimize mob rule. Essentially a vote makes the minority subject to the majority. It is a form of domination and as such is a type of violence. It is certainly less unjust than autocracy or monarchy rule, and setting a higher majority requirement or having a strong constitution may lesson the consequences, but this doesn't fundamentally alter the oppressive aspect of majority rule. Of course what we think of as democracy, or representative democracy is very far from even majority rule, where at every stage, and from the very beginning, money talks loudest. But all of this can be accepted and given little thought if we accept representative democracy and majority rule as the best of a set of bad options.

Taking the core of the democratic principle as the balanced distribution of power, from the Greek dēmokratía “rule of the people” or “people power”, there is no explicit requirement for majority rule or voting. Majority rule is simple one early stab at a democratic system, which while improving on having a great dictatorship, is still fairly poor and subject to much of the same systemic potential for corruption and violence. By continuing to pursue the core meaning of democracy we might discover a truer and less violent implementation of it.

On the point of people requiring a leader, in the sense of such a leader whose authority is backed up by force, this is simply a rationalization for present dominant forms of 'democracy', as well as any other form of hierarchy. What can make it seem sensible, and so not worth much examination or reflection, is observing how violence can spike during times of government or rulership instability, and how it is always there in various forms of crime and exploitation. The conclusion is then that there has to be some strong body to keep a lid on all the violence that seems to naturally spring from people's hearts. But this conclusion is a result of mistaking the map for the territory. As discussed there are many ways for the institutions within culture, controlled by those with the greatest privilege and wealth, to inculcate and habituate violence. And so, without necessarily realizing they are doing it, the leaders end of largely creating the justification for their own existence. And where that justification is infused into the culture, and so supported by people from all levels of privilege and wealth, there is no quick or easy way of overcoming it.

On the point of freedom being a necessary trade for security for the majority, in a sense this is true, but only so long as faith in the market lead democracy paradigm is maintained. The centrality of social hierarchy creates continuous threat, because people generally want to be free, and the system also inculcates the desire to climb the hierarchy. The leadership must continually defend itself, both as an institution and from those who would install themselves in the leader position. Thus the reduction in freedom for the majority, or more specifically the careful control of it at a diminished level, naturally leads to increased security for the ruling class. It also leads to greater leverage of power for the ruling class to defend itself from other hierarchical groups. As a by product of this, and within this environment, a kind of stability may be enjoyed by the majority within the more powerful social hierarchies. Although, since the threat and competition never ends, and it is always the least privileged and least wealthy that die first when war is periodically deemed necessary, the trade of liberty for security is doubly questionable.

Of course the inevitable outbreaks of violence, pre-emptive or retaliatory, ideological or pragmatic, are used to justify the trade of freedom for security. In the larger powers it is done with the call to fight terrorism. According to official statistics, even during 2001 (the year of the twin towers attack, where approximately 3000 people died) in the US, you'd be over 150 times more likely to die from heart disease than a terrorist attack. In a typical year, including US citizens all over the world, you'd be around 10,000 more likely to die from preventable heart disease. In terms of money spent on dealing with it, 50,000 times more gets spent on anti-terrorism measures than on any other cause of death. But, it is given relatively little thought, and naturally the 'anti-terrorism' measures very often involve a good bit of violence themselves.

The establishment view of dangerous thinking

To the establishment, that is the present body of concentrated power and wealth and its various representative institutions of government, big business and the military, 'dangerous thinking' is any thinking that might upset that social order or inhibit its accumulation and holding of power. The kind of violence perceived is to the identity and enjoyment of power the control of the establishment. The fear is that these things will be forcefully taken from them, and perhaps that they will be punished for having taken what they rationalize as being entitled too.

For thinking to be truly dangerous to the establishment it must be persistent and highly contagious. Any other kind will get smothered by mainstream commercial culture which largely reflects the values and beliefs of the establishment.

Thinking that is genuinely dangerous to the establishment is by extension and at certain stages of development also dangerous for those thinking it, and especially those helping most to spread it. This is simply because the function of the establishment is to maintain the power and social order of the group, corporation or country they have command of, and violence is an intrinsic part of maintaining a social hierarchy. The extend of violence that will be used is decided by the force at the establishment's disposal and the expediency of using it, given the threat.

The post-establishment risk of dangerous thinking

While the biggest individual risk of thinking dangerous to the establishment may be persecution, or exclusion, the biggest collective risk is succeeding in reclaiming power from the establishment, but (perhaps unknowingly) carrying on its values and beliefs with different rhetoric. The reason why this is so dangerous is exemplified by soviet era Russia, leaders of which distorted the ideas of socialism to implement a back breaking program of rapid industrialisation and suppression of the great majority. It may be an extreme example, but it does show how socially progressive thinking can be and often is co-opted into recreating a worse version of the usual establishment. Another more recent, smaller scale example of how revolution can be highjacked is Srdja Popovic, a world renowned political activist, now known to have links with a corporate intelligence agency:

The co-opting or corrupting process of a progressive movement happens for various reasons, such as:
  • Lack of forward thinking, or switching to 'the time for conversation has past' mode, increasing a vulnerability for slipping back into old habits, without help, or by creating an opening for someone else to steer the way.
  • Lack of understanding the root problems of the establishment model, thinking that with some relatively small tweaks and different people in charge it would work out better.
  • Faith in one of the core elements of the establishment market lead democracy (the market, representative government with or without rule of majority, and a strong military) and failing to see how one also implies the others.
  • Avoidance of joined-up thinking, focusing solely on small chunks of what is going on (such as a debt based money system, or lobbyists), that may be extremely important, but in isolation result in not seeing (or serve not wanting to see) the bigger picture.
  • Resort to violence without first exhausting all other options, meaning that the conflict falls into territory the establishment are most practised in handling, and which provides fuel for creating division within the movement.
  • Charismatic leaders, who put their social status above the strength and effectiveness of the group, by, for instance, hoarding information, giving commands rather than facilitating, and pitting one part against another.
  • Infiltration, by a charismatic leader, expert or various interests taking advantage of any of the first five points above.

Failure in this way is also dangerous because it is exhausting and demoralizing for those who are genuinely interested in and dedicated to progressive social change, which then weakens the cause, possibly for a generation or more.

The obvious way to avoid such failure is to focus on the inherent strengths of a well-organized but non-hierarchical collective, where ideas are freely exchanges and leadership is purely a function of skill in a particular area and facilitative ability, not something that is taken and backed up with force or power over others. These kinds of collectives can be far more agile and robust than hierarchical ones. This approach to cooperation allows rapid development and re-development of ideas and strategies, at the same time as action is being made and work done.

The emphasis on sharing and giving feedback on key ideas amongst the whole group creates and brings out a strong foundation of common understanding and direction where it is possible, and promotes the social investment that comes from empathy and respect. The attitude of having a specific job to do without much sense of or engagement in the bigger picture, builds in vulnerability to a group and invites hierarchy. When the time for discussion has passed, so too has the chance of much genuinely progressive change.

If we get so far as to build a robust general understanding of progressive change, then there is that other danger to consider; what is a drug addict prepared to do, to secure their fix? Or, what are those holding onto power prepared to do to keep it? It would seem, just about anything. My hope comes from seeing our capacity for learning. On balance the establishment way of thinking and the culture than comes with it is by far more dangerous and violence prone than just about any serious proposal to distribute economic and social opportunity more evenly. Fortunately, there are some signs that collectively we are beginning to understand the threat to our species survival is the hierarchy, is the system of exploitation, is the preoccupation with competition (between people, not ideas). If that is true, then those hoarding power may finally be cured of this cultural disease along with everyone else. Not that it will be easy.

* Picture link: http://liol.deviantart.com/art/Greed-108458360

Two Powerful Mechanisms for Stimulating Economic Activity

Thursday, 5 December 2013 at 09:55
In an economy largely determined by market operations, trade can be stimulated in various ways with the aim to meet resource requirements for general prosperity and well-being.

Trade; the exchange, through money or otherwise, of goods, property rights and services, is the primary way of meeting resource requirements and distributing opportunity for further development within a market-economy. So in that context there is already a sturdy incentive for trade; survival depends on it. Why then would it need to be further stimulated?

The reason that extra stimulation is required for economic activity in a market-economy, can be understood purely from examining the properties of markets.

Markets, left to their own devices (but protected by some official body, such as the State), tend towards increasingly unequal distribution of private wealth and thus resources. This happens due to cumulative competitive advantage, where small differences in wealth will tend to be amplified over time. 

Regardless of mutual gain, in a trade between two parties with unequal wealth, the richer will tend (in proportion to the wealth disparity) to have a stronger bargaining position and greater opportunities to capitalize on the outcome of trade. If you've ever spent much time playing Monopoly you'll know that while luck, and to a degree skill, plays a large part, the more money and property a player has, the more chances they have of amassing more and winning the game. Essentially, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That is a fundamental and well recognized property of markets, even in an expanding economy. This means, if the ability to acquire resources is determined by the tradable assets an individual possesses, there will be a growing number of people unable to participate in economic activity. Hence, without some extra stimulation or fuel for trade, the economy – and the population – will shrink into oblivion.

There is naturally a high risk that as circumstances become more dire for more people, the rules break down and instead of everyone starving, the market blows up, to either be reformed with a fresh distribution of wealth – what usually happens – or for some alternative to be attempted – what usually doesn't last long. There are obviously market restraining (and simultaneously protecting) measures, such as income taxes, regulations and social welfare, but without some extra boost to trade, the vast majority of people would end up being dependant on a subsistence social safety net for survival.

The predominant approach to prevent a market-economy from eating itself out of existence, or blowing up, is debt, and especially creating money from the creation of debt (whether backed, or 'securitized' by some physical resource, or otherwise). The global financial system and market-economy is built on this model and is contrasted below with an alternative approach to stimulating economic activity, within a market paradigm.

Money as Debt
The essential feature of debt which allows economic activity to continue beyond the point it would otherwise be forced to stop in a market-economy, is that it extends the lower end of the scale of wealth, from zero or not enough, to (minus) infinity. If you don't have enough to trade for what you need, you can borrow. Without doubt, borrowing is an indispensable activity in a market-economy, not only for the poor or those of modest wealth, but also for those who wish to leverage their assets and multiply their profits. So debt allows the wheels to keep turning.

There are, however, some properties to debt, besides its ability to extend economic activity, that also exacerbate the anti-economic trajectory of pure markets. Accepting debt, in the form of a loan, is itself a trade, with the lender receiving a promise to repay with some additional interest. So the broad economic utility of debt is still dependant on lenders being willing to lend, which is not always the case. The lender naturally wants to ensure a profitable outcome of the trade, which means the borrower successfully repaying the loan plus the interest, which depends on the borrower being able to make sufficient profitable trades (including giving labour for wages) elsewhere. As a trade, a loan is just another market operation which facilitates the market behaviour of concentrating wealth and thus increasing economic inequality, but with the additional pressuring factor of interest payment.

With a money system based on debt, having interest outstanding in a market-economy mathematically requires more money to be created to cover the interest. That then leads to more money being required to cover the debt associated with that money, and so on. On the one hand this provides a pressure for economic growth, but on the other it also creates inflation (rising cost of goods and services through the falling purchasing power of a given sum of currency), by increasing the pool of (debt based) money in the economy. This continuous kind of inflation is generally not completely counteracted by lower cost production technology, and through a number of channels, increases the economic wealth gap between rich and poor.

It is true that inflation can erode savings, but by definition only savings which gain interest at less than the rate of inflation; two examples being keeping your money under the mattress, and the large majority of pension funds (which constitute most of the savings for the least wealthy majority), which under-perform inflation in the long term. For those with substantial wealth there are far better opportunities for investment.

Since resources, demand for goods and services, and employment opportunities are all limited, there will always be a certain part of a population who simply cannot make sufficient profitable trades to repay loans for resources they need. There will also be those who are hit by unforeseen circumstances, or who decide to cheat. That is, loans will not always be offered when needed, and will not always be repaid.

To avoid market breakdown due to lack of credit (availability of debt) or ability to repay, the total pool of wealth within an economy and consequent opportunity for trade and profit must continually grow. If growth stops, debt may provide a short buffer, but as the market concentrates wealth, the prospects of debt being repaid diminish, and so credit will dry up. In support of the debt approach to stimulating economic activity, it is argued that the social impact of being in debt, and having interest to work off, motivates people to work harder, thus creating the economic growth required.

As already mentioned, there are certain intrinsic motivations for economic activity, the sustaining and development of life and well-being, and markets in their pure form concentrate economic opportunity into ever fewer hands. While debt can keep a market-economy rolling, because it also reinforces economic inequality it will alter the character of motivation and economic activity (and consequently much non-economic activity) for much of the population.

When working to repay debt, or just managing to service the interest, while granted much better than starving or going without shelter, there is a tendency for the mind to narrow, especially where economic freedom is low and the debt payments take a significant chunk of the income. In this state (compared to having adequate wealth to avoid debt or keep it to a small and easily managed level) there is less time to listen to our various human needs beside the matter at hand of paying the debt, along with the other bills and covering the basics. Less time to pursue interests, even where they would not require much additional resources. Less time to think, learn, create, connect and innovate. Less time or mental space to relax and enjoy. When in debt there is also less opportunity to be selective about what work to accept, and more pressure simply to take what will pay, to service the debt.

This narrowing of the mind and restriction of broader individual development presents a significant opportunity cost to society, through the quality of culture and innovation that might have been created, through a more widespread, fuller development of human potential. In short, the debt approach offers a choice between going hungry or varying degrees of servitude to concentrated wealth, while in so doing creating a high opportunity cost for society. The global research of the Equality Trust clearly shows that substantial inequality is indeed harmful not just to the poor, but in a variety of ways to everyone in society.

There is also the minor issue of the debt approach requirement for indefinite geometric growth, on a finite planet. A minor issue which is fast casting its shadow across the globe. To clarify, in an economy with ten acres of land and ten blocks of gold, the GDP (total sum of all trade) can vary according to how much trade is made, which can increase through new services and technological innovation to allow more to be done with less. This is known as intensive economic growth. However, there is a limit to how much and how fast those factors can grow an economy, especially where a large number of people have relatively low economic opportunity, and ultimately the wealth concentrating property of markets will force (regardless of other factors which may do the same) new land and new gold and other resources to be acquired. This is known as extensive economic growth, and is the kind that bumps up against the hard limit of a finite planet.

It is almost certain that so long as a market paradigm is used for economic management, debt will be a necessary evil. Were the base currency not linked with the creation of national debt (as is invariably the case with central banks now), such as proposed by Positive Money and others, the overall debt burden would be reduced. But the availability of individual loans would most probably still be a necessary buffer or enabler of opportunity for some of the population. The negative impacts and extent of debt may be further reduced though, through various redistributive economic measures.

Tax on Property
A tax on property amounts to a redistributive approach to stimulating economic activity (as in principle most taxes are), whether the tax revenue is redistributed directly, or via government spending. It is not directly concerned with the creation of money or the use of debt. When used in combination with a particular debt approach, providing redistribution is either direct, or effectively managed, it will reduce the need for individual debt. 

The idea presented here is a particular form of property tax, where all private wealth is taxed, periodically, not when it is traded, but while it is owned, and redistributed largely in a direct form. It would include real-estate, land, food, materials, industrial equipment, stocks, patents, interest baring bank accounts, every kind of owned economic asset. Hence a more descriptive name for it could be 'Universal, Recurring, Directly Redistributive Tax'. The tax would principally be financial, but could also be in the form of produce. Through national or local government the tax (or a large majority portion of it) would then be evenly distributed to the population.

The rationale of such a tax on property is to encourage the profitable use of resources, where they are privately owned. It would only make sense to hold property, for those with more than average wealth, if it was creating profit above the rate of tax. If an individual's amount of property was below the average they would receive more tax revenue than they give, and vice versa.

This kind of tax on property is quite distinct from income tax, corporation tax, or tax on trade (stamp duty, VAT, import). These other types of taxes essentially tax profits or economic activity itself, which creates understandable resistance and can be avoided in various clever ways. A property tax is not concerned with profits, and encourages trade. It is also relatively simple to calculate; if something is owned, it gets taxed. But like with most taxes, it may also allow for deferrals and exemptions under special circumstances, and have potentially different rates for different types of asset. 

Other forms of property tax exist, such as council tax and inheritance tax. These forms are either much more limited in the scope of property they apply to, or apply once per generation (providing loopholes are not exploited), rather than on a rolling annual or quarterly basis. Stamp duty is also a property tax, but applies only when trade occurs. The type of property tax being discussed here is a comprehensive, recurring tax, designed to have a redistributive force strong enough to sufficiently counteract the anti-economic, wealth concentrating characteristic of markets, thus allowing more collectively prosperous economic opportunities and development. The virtue of making redistribution primarily in direct form, rather than managed through government programs, is to ensure that economic freedom and opportunity is widely distributed.

Besides the practical economic benefits, the ideological basis of it is that the government provides a service of protecting private property and the safe, stable operation of the market, with the opportunity for profit that comes with it. And in return for that valuable service and the resources required to render it, the government on behalf of the public interest requires a percentage, which it distributes to the public. Each member of the public is given an equal share, simply by being part of the economy from which profit can be made, and recognising the value in giving everyone a more equal chance to contribute, through a more equal economic opportunity. (There is no need to adopt a false doctrine of absolute economic equality.) If someone is a successful wealth accumulator, whether through innovation of business acumen, they can carry on doing that and profiting. But the idea of the tax is that it strongly deters anyone from simply sitting on accumulated wealth, or letting it appreciate through unproductive uses, which is harmful to the rest of society.

Let's consider the example of a home. What happens when someone retires from business and the tax on their property, which includes the house they live in, comes around? If the owner's total wealth including the value of the home is less than the average, they would have nothing to pay, because their contribution would be less than the dividend they receive. If the owner's total wealth is more than the average, then tax would be due in proportion to their additional wealth. So if someone wants to live in a 20 bedroom mansion, that's fine, but they would need to figure out a way of making their total wealth continue to be economically productive, and thus hopefully useful to society, to cover the tax. (Or, less probably, to have had so much wealth accumulated that they can carry on paying the tax without it affecting their chosen lifestyle.) The idea is to shift distribution towards human needs and provision of opportunity, and away from human greed. Greed, to put it simply, is supported only so far as it provides a measurable net benefit for the rest of society, otherwise it is collectively detrimental.

Even though it may be simpler to calculate and more difficult to evade, a tax on property, like any other tax, would still be subject to some people and corporations not wanting to pay it. One reason to expect more honesty than with other taxes on profits or trade, is insurance. Particularly valuable property is often insured, to cover loss or damage. But if such property is not declared and counted in tax contributions, then no legal insurance claim could be made. With a property tax, there would be no need for income tax, corporation tax, or trade tax. So to replace three types of taxes with one, which is more favourable to trade, would surely aid its popular acceptance. 

One obvious exemption to the tax, that might enhance the sharing and development of practical skills, would be the value added from a person's direct labour. So if for example someone builds an extension to (or the whole of) their own house, the value added to the property embodied in that labour would be tax deductible.

A tax on property not only encourages economic activity by providing additional incentive for property owners to turn a profit on that property, but also through its redistributive function, which directly creates more economic opportunity for most of the population. In turn that more widespread economic opportunity fosters technological and social innovation. A tax on property is one way of providing a Basic Income. But as a stimulator of economic activity it does not create a pressure for perpetual, geometric, extensive growth of the economy, as debt does. It keeps the wheels turning, but without requiring an ever bigger cart.

Shifting to a redistributive method of stimulating economic activity, would help spread a deeper understanding of the practical benefits of peaceful collaboration with equal respect of each others needs.


Rising Foreign Aid - The Injustice and the Scope of Debate

Wednesday, 4 December 2013 at 19:07
The UK government recently announced a £1 billion rise in foreign aid over 5 years, amidst ongoing economic austerity. The Express and Daily Mail covered the story yesterday, with all the expected outrage.

Of course there is huge corruption and waste when it comes to foreign aid, and charity in general. As if to fuel the resentment, it's ultimately the most disadvantaged that are paying for it, whether through tax revenue (however much of that money is first delivered in profits to the top income percentiles, through their leveraging of the work of the bottom percentiles, and then a fraction paid back out through income tax) or donation.

So then there is the question, which the tabloids and more right leaning broadsheets delight in posing: "Why should the poor be helping out the poor in other countries, or just funding corrupt and inefficient aid programs over there, when there are lots of people struggling here, and those countries have things like space programs?" Obviously there is a lot of injustice in the scenario, which calls for firm measures to address it.

But to address the injustices involved in foreign aid (and much large charity programs) most effectively, it's important to look at a broader context; the context of the global market-economy system, which encompasses the military and propaganda apparatus of war and economic exploitation, and the bought 'democracies' that promote and support it. Not only are the people with the least economic freedom and opportunity the ones who fight and die in wars, though they do not call for war, and provide the grunt in systemic mass exploitation, though many do not wish for exploitation, but they are then left to pay for repairing the mess, just enough for the whole travesty to carry on for another round.

So the question "Why should we pay to help them, when we need help too, and maybe they could help themselves?" may have some merit. But it doesn't dig deep enough (as the papers that push it well know) to help question the paradigm that leads to such messes in the first place. In fact, the question is most relevant to the leaders of the establishment, who seek to find the best cost/benefit ratio for maintaining the status quo, while at the same time undermining sympathy for the plight and exploitation of other countries which may contribute to profit. To stoke popular bitterness, even where a good bit of that is directed to the government - diffused somewhat by contributing to an image of it being caring (even over-caring) and progressive - comparisons are made between the aid fund and cuts to services and rising unemployment. As if a choice is, should and could only be made between those things. As if it's all a zero sum game between the disadvantaged.

On the one hand, the intention and effort of giving to those in need, even where we're in hard times too, is a mark of empathy, and if there is one human virtue that can change the system for the better, it's empathy. On the other hand this empathy is being contained and exploited. It's our willingness to help each other out, combined with our obedience that is keeping the parasite monster of Monopoly-made-real, breathing, where otherwise it would soon just eat itself out of existence (admittedly along with most of us). Is the answer to be less empathetic, less willing to help those in need? I don't think so. I think that would put us in a worse place. But if we can find the bravery to be less obedient, and more willing to learn, then there is much more hope.

The more pertinent question relating to aid, stepping beyond the mainstream prescribed scope of debate, then, would be "Why is it, that despite our knowledge and technology, there are still people in poverty and hunger?" And not to stop at the lazy answer of "Oh, it's just our nature" but to go on and examine what it is about the social, economic and political institutions in our society that are nurturing and emphasizing those potential traits to abuse, dominate and exploit other people? What it is about them that fosters mass obedience? What assumptions do they make about freedom, security and progress? When we start to get a clearer picture of that, then we can begin to see practical ways forward. It's ultimately not that complex, but it does require sustained effort.

Besides the bravery, we have to keep our minds engaged and continue to share and develop our understanding. Otherwise it's very easy to let the anger spill over into violence, where there are always voices there to encourage it, in the most 'revolutionary' rhetoric. The point where violence is embraced is exactly the point where we can sure of either losing or of creating something much the same as what we wanted to go beyond, and that's not going to help anyone.

* painting: "Cimon and Pero" - Peter Paul Rubens

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