As it widens the ‘metabolic rift’ between humanity and nature in its insatiable quest for more profit, for endless growth, Capitalism has revealed a fatal design flaw. There is nothing in its internal logic to interrupt its momentum – to stop it eating its way through our planet, and ultimately collapsing our global ecosystems. Therefore, we must intervene and redirect it. The only way to do this is to make the global population aware of the dilemma, while those with the technical and creative capability design, field-test, and distribute a functional alternative.
I find it helpful to look at the problem – as if we are seeing it from outside, like space aliens observing the Earth from an observatory on a moon of Jupiter – through the paradigm of design. When designers want to make something new, they expect they will have to build and field-test a series of versions and prototypes. When the first model breaks down, they build a second version. When that version fails, they create another. They keep iterating until they get it right. Artists, similarly, experiment in their studio, destroying or painting over their failed attempts until their vision emerges.
Trial and Error
When it comes to building a social, or a political-economic, system, humanity has followed these steps – experimenting, building a prototype, field-testing it, discovering where the model breaks down, developing a new prototype, experimenting, field-testing, watching it fail, and so on – over and over. Unfortunately, however, when the current version of society crashes, it doesn’t happen in the laboratory or studio. It takes place across the much broader canvas of nation-states and civilizations. It tragically utilizes human beings – swarms, masses of them – as it splatters and drips.
Perhaps the greatest systems thinker of the 20th Century was the design scientist Buckminster Fuller. Fuller combined two strains of American thought: transcendent idealism and pragmatism, in a long career. He was a prolific inventor, mathematician, and visionary. He passed through his own initiation as a young man, contemplating suicide at the age of 32, after the death of a beloved child. He decided that, rather than kill himself, he would dedicate his life to accomplishing the greatest good for humanity, without thought or consideration of personal gain. Fuller wrote many books expounding his philosophy, including Synergetics, Critical Path, Operating Manuel for Spaceship Earth, and Utopia or Oblivion – they remain very relevant today.
In the 1960s, Fuller foresaw only two possible outcomes for humanity: We would either continue our current social and political arrangements and soon destroy ourselves, or we would undergo a design revolution in every arena. As part of this design revolution, we would apply our technical powers to allocate resources efficiently, working together to elevate everyone on Earth to a high standard of living and education. Even a half-century ago, he saw that we already possessed the technical means, as well as the resources, to do this. But the opportunity has been blocked by the inertia of our out-of-date political and financial arrangements, as well as the ideology behind this antiquated system.
All who are really dedicated to the earliest possible attainment of economic and physical success for all humanity – and thereby realistically to eliminate work – will have to shift their focus from the political arena to participation in the design revolution. – Buckminster Fuller
Fuller believed that the current model of work would be abolished in a truly rational society. I wholeheartedly agree with him. Deep down, nobody wants a job to occupy so much of their time. People want a mission that inspires them; that compels them to dig deep to apply their reserves of creativity, cunning, compassion, and courage.
Fuller noted that most of the work people do is a drain on the Earth’s resources. All around the world, people are driving in cars to offices, using computers, toner cartridges, and Styrofoam packages. All of this is costly from the perspective of the planet’s ecology (apparently, the words ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’ have the same root).
Self-Sufficient Living and ‘Cultivated Leisure’
It would be much more economical and efficient, Fuller reasoned, to subsidize people so they could live in self-sufficient communities where they produced their own food and energy. He proposed giving everyone on Earth who didn’t already have a mission, a “research grant for life,” in whatever subject interested them. I love this idea.
Oscar Wilde, who was also a brilliant social thinker, arrived at the same conclusion over a half-century before Fuller. Instead of the current system, Wilde believed, we needed some form of socialism, where people shared property and reduced government to its most basic utilitarian functions. He thought that attaining a liberated society required developing our machines so they could do all of the depressing and miserable labor – the drudgery – freeing people to develop their unique individuality. Wilde saw ‘cultivated leisure,’ not work, as the ultimate purpose of human existence.
A New Vision for Human Purpose
I find it significant that the field of robotics is developing quickly, reaching the point where machines can, in fact, do all of the horrible, dehumanizing tasks. Depending on what kind of society we construct for ourselves, we could liberate ourselves from meaningless labor within the next half-century. For this to happen, we need a new vision of human purpose and possibility.
Buckminster Fuller made one error: he believed that the design revolution could happen without a major transformation in the political arena, forgetting that social systems are also artifacts of human design. As Arendt recognized, western thinkers have tended to ignore our political and social system, which has developed through trial-and-error, experiment, failure, and innovation. Also, it seems obvious that the only way we can address these areas is by changing the underlying beliefs, values, and ideology that make up the consciousness of the collective.
Take these three areas: technical infrastructure, which includes agriculture, energy, industry, and so on; the social or political-economic system; and consciousness – the beliefs, values, and ideology that is reinforced and reiterated through media, laws, and education. These three main areas all work together; like three wheels with intermeshed gears that turn each other. When our technology changes, for instance, it opens new possibilities, which can change the social system as well as the collective consciousness.
As an example, we can look at the evolution of media technology, which has profoundly reshaped society over time. There would never have been far-flung Empires like Rome without a written code of laws, which could be disseminated across its territories, homogenizing how people behaved. The modern nation-state, our current form of liberal democracy, would have been impossible without the printing press, which allowed people to stay updated with regular news, so they could participate in elections as informed citizens. Following this logic, the interactive media we have developed over the last decades should also lead to a profound social transformation, beyond what we have already seen.
A False Sense of Individuality
Karl Marx developed a model of how the technical, social, and ideological areas supported each other as part of a whole system. He named them ‘base’, ‘structure’, and ‘super-structure’. Marx also realized that the 18th Century revolutions had been incomplete, because they supported a false mode of individuality, protecting each man’s rights (including the right to property) against that of other men.
The revolutions of the 18th Century degraded “the sphere in which man conducts himself as a communal being.” They enshrined:
the freedom of egoistic man… Man was therefore not freed from religion; he received religious freedom. He was not freed from property. He received freedom of property. He was not freed from the egoism of trade, but received freedom to trade.
The revolutions, therefore, led to the commercial society we have today, where people protect their interests against each other.
“Workers unite: You have nothing to lose but your chains,” Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto. They wanted a worldwide revolution to liberate the proletariat – the urban workers, the industrial underclass – which they romanticized as the true subject of history. Their goal was to establish a stateless, classless society without privilege, private property, or hierarchy, where the workers would own the means of production, and all aspects of social life would be centrally controlled.
Marx and his followers believed a worker-owned society would mean liberation from domination and servitude – it would be the end of history. In practice, it didn’t work out that way. Communist revolutions led to totalitarian regimes and dictatorships. Communism became a disgraced philosophy in the West.
Political Expression in an Authentic Society
The Venus Project, developed by the millenarian Jacque Fresco, promotes a high-tech upgrade of communism. Fresco and his collaborators foresee a ‘utopian’ future based on a ‘resource economy’ without money or political parties. Technology would be applied rationally, to create a world without social divisions, where goods would be mathematically distributed as needed. The Venus Project looks towards complete automation and computerization to liberate humanity from all forms of drudgery.
‘Over time, automated machines would intelligently manage the earth’s resources and ultimately free humanity of all unnecessary laborious tasks,’ one proponent writes. ‘All of the world’s resources would be held as common heritage, and all people would have unhindered access to any resource, good, or product available, without the use of money, credit, barter, or any form of debt or servitude.’
In the end, I disagree with Fresco that the world should be run by super-computers. I agree, instead, with Hannah Arendt who believed that political expression is part of our human essence. Politics doesn’t have to be a corrupt puppet show. In an authentic society, the activity of politics – debate, discussion, decision- making – would be part of the fun. We would engage with it as something beautiful and true.
Postmodern society thwarts our innate desire to participate politically. Just voting in an election every few years, marching once in a while, or signing petitions on Avaaz or MoveOn doesn’t count for much. We need new avenues for passionate participation – not just in elections every few years, but continuously. The desire for this is so effectively masked and covered up that most people don’t even feel it as something they have forfeited.
Today’s communications infrastructure could support a permanent revolution. It seems possible – let’s try a thought experiment – to build a social networking infrastructure, via the Internet, that seamlessly supports political collaboration, direct democracy and resource sharing, based on transparent exchanges. If we had such a platform, we would also need to undertake a mass educational initiative through the media. As part of a mass movement, we would disseminate the values and principles of a cooperative, trust-based society across the world.