It’s capitalism, stupid.

Residency report: March

I’m well into my activist-in-residency in motherhood, and it seems like a good moment to write up my thoughts so far as I read and talk to friends about utopias and “a better world”.

I began this project with a far-reaching syllabus, put together based on friends’ recommendations and my own wishlist. At the end of the post are my hot takes on the books so far: what’s worth reading and what’s not.

Before imagining what should be better about the world, I wanted to first more fully understand what’s wrong with it in the first place.

It didn’t take long to find a common culprit of much of what ails us. From social inequality to climate change, from gentrification to trust-eroding technologies, from digital colonialism to poor urban planning: most authors I read argued that it’s our underlying economic system that’s breaking things.

In short, it’s capitalism, stupid.

This conclusion is somehow clarifying yet dissatisfying. I liken it to playing the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. If you take nearly any qualm about the world, and ask “why does this suck” enough times, you’ll end up answering “because capitalism.” This critique has been around for a long time and comes of course with its own intellectual baggage. But I did come across some nuances that helped me understand why at this particular moment capitalism seems unequivocally dangerous and unjust.

The most succinct analysis was delivered by the French economist Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He demonstrates simply that wealth outpaces income. A person investing capital will make more money than someone who earns a salary. And one is more likely to have capital to invest if it was inherited than if you worked for it. In this way, capitalism consolidates wealth over generations and creates increasing inequality.

We can’t consume our way to a healthy climate.

Not only does capitalism create inequality, but it also is destroying the planet. Naomi Klein argues in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate that climate change is a direct result of capitalism. Our planet can’t sustain the pace of capital, Klein writes, and the climate crisis will be so devastating that it requires unprecedented coordination and rethinking of society. Mitigating disaster could allow us to resolve other injustices, if we seize the opportunity. However, many of the mechanisms we have to put the climate back on track are being thwarted by monied interests.

Klein’s book has had the most profound effect on me so far, as it has reaffirmed for me the extreme urgency of working on climate issues. While I knew that we’re not tracking well in terms of carbon emissions, I was truly shaken upon learning that since the climate negotiations of the 1990s, carbon emissions have gone up 61% at the time of her writing in 2014.

I recalled how immediate and central I found the environmental movement about 10 years ago when I was in college. Since then, while I still consider it important, climate change had moved into the background of my daily life. I now mainly addressed it in individual, middle class consumption ways like buying organic food and taking public transportation.

Apparently, my behavior tracks well with what Klein calls Big Green and its strategy of the last decade or so to be capitalism-friendly. Rather than the confrontational (and arguably more successful) tactics of earlier decades, Klein shows that in the 2000s many important environmental groups shifted away from systemic critique and instead cozied up to oil companies and tried to get people to keep consuming at current rates but in a greener way. Particularly dismaying is her reporting on the Nature Conservancy—get this!—is drilling for oil on land it bought to protect an endangered species. I found her coverage of these hypocrisies dismaying but also galvanizing.

It’s often said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. Klein gives evidence to how the last decade or so of market-based solutions for climate change have not worked. As someone who doesn’t follow the environmental movement as much as I should and would like to, I found her research notable and informative. Nevertheless, I did not enjoy reading the book, which had me outraged on every one of its 500+ pages. There is a film to accompany the book,, and I presume that’s a more compelling way to hear the same arguments, although I haven’t watched it yet.

I thought the internet would be different.

In its early days, the internet seemed like it would bring complete systemic change. It would facilitate more egalitarian economies, like the commons-based peer production Yochai Benkler championed in 2006 in The Wealth of Networks. The old industrial powers had no jurisdiction online, as John Perry Barlow famously stated in A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. The internet would be different.

Barlow sadly passed away last month, and it was a moment to celebrate his legacy and to critically examine it. The best piece I read about Barlow and the early web utopians was by April Glaser in Slate. She argued that his vision of personal liberty online was instrumental and inspired a generation of activists (myself included). Yet his legacy falls short when it comes to human rights and social justice. In all his wariness of government and its infringement on individuals’ lives, Barlow overlooked the role of corporations. This framing has informed internet activism for decades.

However, we are increasingly seeing the harm of commercial internet giants, such as recent revelations about Facebook’s collaboration with Cambridge Analytica. In Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Douglas Rushkoff proclaims that many internet companies are unsustainable, trust-breaking, growth-obsessed capitalists. I wanted this book to be so much more. It could have been the book-length response to Glaser’s provocations. It could have answered why the dream of the open web fell short, and unlike the utopia of Barlow’s manifesto, we are seeing massive power consolidation and commercialization online. However, despite it’s excellent title, Rushkoff skims across various digital economy topics with little cohesion. (“Did you say blockchain? How about algorithmic trading? Wait, there’s something I need to say about venture capital.”)

The book is somewhat redeemed when Rushkoff calls out the tech industry as a house of cards built on the myth of growth. The obsession with growth pushes companies to take on investment, and then pressures them to “undercut human workers, sell on the public markets and then—almost inevitably—collapse under the weight of public market demands.” The recently leaked memo from Facebook justifying growth at all costs highlights this ideology.

The focus on growth isn’t news to anyone following start-ups, but it helps articulate one of the reasons why the internet hasn’t delivered a radically different social order: the digital economy still operates by the same capitalist logic that everything else does.

What’s the so-what-ness?

I’m using this double diamond diagram to figure out where I’m at in my residency. I began by looking at what are some of the root causes of inequality and injustice. It was a phase of surveying and critiquing. I opened a lot of divergent threads, and I can feel my mind spreading out — probably too thinly — across these different topics.

As a next step, I want to converge and close in on some ideas, especially practical and constructive approaches to these root ills. Here are some aspects I would like to investigate:

  • Degrowth. We are arguably producing too much and pushing for too much growth. How do you slow things down? What incentives and structures lead to degrowth? What would the consequences be?
  • Decommodification and universal basic income. I’m interested in how social entitlements like health care, education, transport, internet access could be protected from the logic of the market. As part of that, universal basic income is receiving a boost in recent years including pilot programs in Finland among other places. Tech billionaires are also promoting it, so that gives one pause.
  • Co-operatives and employee ownership. Do these models of ownership encourage more sustainable businesses? How might co-operatives lead to better labor practices, degrowth and fairer goods and services?
  • Buying debt. I’m struggling to grasp all the ways that debt rules our world, but one initiative caught my eye: Rolling Jubilee set up around Occupy Wall Street. It effectively crowdfunded the buying of debt and dissolved $31 million of dollars of student and medical debt. Can and should we do more of this?
  • Divestment in fossil fuels. This seems to be one of the effective ways to keep carbon in the ground. Groups like 350.org are doing a lot of divestment campaigning. What’s tech’s role in this? How can we get internet companies to divest, for example through their employees’ pension plans? How can more of the internet’s infrastructure and data centers move to renewables, as I understand a few of the major players have already done?
  • Craft technology. I’m really interested in decentralized production and how a craft approach could yield more sustainable and more trustworthy technology. What is the craftsperson’s relationship and responsibility to what they create? What is the relationship between the craftsperson and the user/buyer? How might this mode of creation be different, dare I say even utopian?

The hot takes.

The books discussed above most clearly fit into a narrative of my residency. Below are other things I’m reading and thinking about with some quick recommendations. See my full reading list here.

  • David Graeber: Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Very accessible and surprising humorous writer. Uses anthropology to debunk myths of economic history. For example, there’s no empirical evidence that any historic society used the barter system as an evolutionary step before inventing money. Instead, early economies were fueled by debt. Would like to read more of Graeber, especially his coverage of the Occupy movement.
  • Noam Chomsky: Occupy. A waste of time! I’ve not read Chomsky before, and this may not be representative of his other writing, but this was a poorly edited collection of transcripts and random essays that were left in a drawer somewhere. It includes in full text meandering questions of audience members during his talks. Incoherent and a disappointing read from someone I was genuinely interested in learning more about.
  • The Big Short. Planet Money teamed up with Hollywood to explain things like subprime mortgages with Margot Robbie drinking champagne in a bubble bath. You’re left cheering for the Wall Street underdogs who bet against the big banks while still profiting from the whole bust and people loses their homes and livelihoods. Scary that some of these players have moved on to betting on water futures and other disaster capitalism endeavors. Definitely recommend watching and not just for Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt in one film.
  • Lewis Hyde: The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property . I like a lot of the ideas of this book, but I found myself fatigued in the first half where Hyde covers various anthropological examples of how gifts work. I haven’t finished it, but the latter part is perhaps more applicable when he talks about the role of gifts in creating art.
  • The Third Industrial Revolution. A TED talk and university lecture mash-up rather than a documentary. I’m wary of Rifkin’s gloss over the non-sustainable aspects of the Internet of Things (the environmental costs of electronics, the current conditions of labor to make, install and maintain them, the governance of the data, etc). However, he makes an strong case about the confluence of: 1) locally generated renewable energy; 2) the internet-enabled grid to convey the energy and data about its usage, and 3) a transport layer that runs on renewables. Apparently, the EU and China have taken his analysis to heart and deployed big infrastructure projects informed by his work.
  • Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything. See my comments above. I strongly recommend the ideas and journalism of the book, but the film might be a more enjoyable format for getting them than the book.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me. Highly recommended for its lyrical prose and Coates as the intellectual heir to James Baldwin. He examines how “the Dream” of white America is inherently exclusionary, exploitative and unjust and how as person of color, there is no safe harbor from physical violence. I also recommend Coates’ writing in the Atlantic about both the Obama presidency and Trump.
  • Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities. It reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges in how whole worlds can be constructed so simply and poetically. I only made it about halfway, though. It didn’t seem so relevant for this residency, although I can imagine dipping in and out of chapters every once in a while just for the joy of hearing cities described in such unexpected ways.
  • Remo H. Largo: Die Baby Jahre. My go-to book now on child development. A matter-of-fact, science-backed summary of the main milestones for an infant and very practical recommendations for what parents can do. Unfortunately, he occasionally tosses in conservative and stereotypical comments on gender roles. That aspect could use some updating.
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity. See above for more. Awesome title, but disappointing content. Wish he’d gone deeper on Silicon Valley rather than skipping through a list of economics topics.
  • Joan Didion: White Album. One of my favorite writers. She puts herself in the right place at the right time to experience generation-defining moments, and then she analyzes them with such insight and aptness. Her essays make the personal universal and vice versa.
  • Sunvault: Solarpunk Anthology. The solarpunk scene is quite compelling to me. I love the rekindled genre of utopian science fiction. I only sampled a few stories from this anthology. Some read like a Cory Doctorow novel: almost a manual for navigating social and technical tools. Would like to read more from here and on Tumblr, where a lot of the solarpunk community hangs out, apparently.
  • Ursula Le Guin: The Dispossessed. One of the best reads of my residency. A parable about an anarchist society and a capitalist one. Le Guin makes organizational theory come to life, and her worlds are complicated, ambiguous ones.

Wrapping up, it’s been a intellectually fruitful few weeks. Going forward, I’m keen to keep sharpening my understanding of some of these larger issues while getting practical about the small, specific actions I could do.

As always, I warmly welcome tips, feedback, recommendations and other chatter!

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