Democratic Money and Capital for the Commons

One of the more complicated, mostly unresolved issues facing most commons is how to assure the independence of commons when the dominant systems of finance, banking and money are so hostile to commoning. How can commoners meet their needs without replicating (perhaps in only modestly less harmful ways) the structural problems of the dominant money system?

Fortunately, there are a number of fascinating, creative initiatives around the world that can help illuminate answers to this question – from co-operative finance and crowdequity schemes to alternative currencies and the blockchain ledger used in Bitcoin, to reclaiming public control over money-creation to enable “quantitative easing for people” (and not just banks). 

To help start a new conversation on these issues, the Commons Strategies Group, working in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, co-organized a Deep Dive strategy workshop in Berlin, Germany, last September.  We brought together 24 activists and experts on such topics as public money, complementary currencies, community development finance institutions, public banks, social and ethical lending, commons-based virtual banking, and new organizational forms to enable “co-operative accumulation” (the ability of collectives to secure equity ownership and control over assets that matter to them).

I’m happy to report that a report synthesizing the key themes and cross-currents of dialogue at that workshop is now available.  The report is called “Democratic Money and Capital for the Commons:  Strategies for Transforming Neoliberal Finance Through Commons-Based Alternatives,” (pdf file) by David Bollier and Pat Conaty.

You could consider the 54-page report an opening gambit for commoners to discuss how money, banking and finance could better serve their interests as commoners.  There are no quick and easy answers if only because so much of the existing money system is oriented towards servicing the conventional capitalist economy.  Even basic financial terms often have an embedded logic that skews toward promoting relentless economic growth, the extractivist economy and its pathologies, and the notion that money itself IS wealth. 

That said, commoners have many important reasons for engaging with this topic.  As we put it in the Introduction to the report, “The logic of neoliberal capitalism is responsible for at least three interrelated, systemic problems that urgently need to be addressed – the destruction of ecosystems, market enclosures of commons, and assaults on equality, social justice and the capacity of society to provide social care to its citizens. None of these problems is likely to be overcome unless we can find ways to develop innovative co-operative finance and money systems that can address all three problems in integrated ways.”

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The Robin Hood Coop, an Activist Hedge Fund

Now here is an improbable idea:  an activist hedge fund.  Out of Tampere, Finland, comes the Robin Hood Asset Management Coop, which legally speaking, is an investment cooperative.  It is designed to skim the cream off of frothy investments in the stock market to help support commoners.  As the website for the coop describe it:

We use financial technologies to democratize finance, expand financial inclusion and generate new economic space.  Robin Hood’s proposition is no different than it was 600 years ago in Sherwood:  arbitrage the routes of wealth and distribute the loot as shared resources.  Today we just use different methods to achieve the same:  we analyze big data, write algorithms, deploy web-based technologies and engineer financial instruments to create and distribute surplus profits for all.  Why?  Simply, we believe a more equitable world is a better one.  

The Robin Hood Coop currently has 808 members from some 15 countries, and manages about 651,000 euros in various stock market investments.  Started in June 2012, the coop has generated over 100,000 euros for its members and to its common pool, which is used to support commons projects.  Robin Hood reports that in its first year, it had “the third most profitable rate of return in the world of all the hedge funds.” 

Anyone can join the coop for a 30€ membership fee, which entitles members to invest a minimum of 30€.  Members can then choose eight different options for splitting any profits (after costs) among their own accounts, Robin Hood Projects and the general Robin Hood Fund.  Most members choose a simple 50-50 split of profits to themselves and Robin Hood Projects.  For the past two full years of its operations, the project has been profitable. (As of November 19, however, net asset value was down 6.38%.)  Robin Hood says that its operating costs are quite low compared to normal asset management services provided by banks.

The enterprise is driven by Robin Hood’s “dynamic data-mining algorithm,” which it calls “Parasite,” because it tracks actual transactions in US stock markets and mimics the best market actors.  The coop’s website explains:  “The parasite listens to the feed of the NYSE, watching for traders and what they trade. Then it competency ranks traders, identifying ones that are constantly making money on specific stocks. When it sees that a consensus is forming among such competent traders, it follows.”   Robin Hood appears to be out-performing many leading hedge funds and reaping impressive returns, and it provides a modest but welcome source of income for some commons projects.

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Max Haiven on the Capitalist Enclosure of Imagination

Max Haiven, a writer, teacher and organizer in Halifax, Canada, recently posted an essay on the website of ROAR magazine that is excerpted from his forthcoming book, Crisis of Imagination, Crises of Power:  Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons (Zed Books).  It’s a fascinating piece that dissects the formidable capacity of global capitalist systems to control our sense of the possible. 

It seems that Haiven has been thinking quite deeply about how the “financialization of culture”  for some time.  He writes:  “…the system is more invested than ever in preoccupying and enclosing our sense of self and of the future; our hopes, dreams and aspirations; and our capacity to imagine.”  A sense of futility preemptively neutralizes any threats to the system without the need to use visible force.  Modest incremental improvements within the existing system are the best that anyone can aspire to. 

“From this perspective,” writes Haiven, an assistant professor at the Nova Scotia College or Art and Design, “radical social movements that seek to transform society can only be interpreted as vainglorious or pathologically ideological. It is also this fatalism that enables radicalisms to be co-opted and internalized within the system: if the system cannot actually be overcome, the only horizon of dissent is an inadvertent improvement of the system itself.  Radical demands for the re-imagining of value are tamed and made to offer piecemeal solutions to capitalist crises; attempts to live out anti-capitalist values are transmuted into commercialized subcultures; anti-racist or feminist movements are co-opted into opportunities for a select few to enter into the middle class.”

So what to do?  Haiven brilliantly explains how commoning can be effectively “jam” the usual cooptation strategies deployed by the Market/State:   

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What Do We Mean When We Talk about “Value”?

Now that free market dogma has become the dominant narrative about value – and yet that narrative is neither credible nor readily displaced -- we are descending deeper and deeper into a legitimacy crisis.  There is no shared moral justification for the power of markets and civil institutions in our lives.  Since the 2008 financial crisis, the idea of “rational markets” has become something of a joke.  There are too many external forces propping up markets – government subsidies, legal privileges, oligopoly power, etc. – to believe the textbook explanations of “free markets.”

This is a serious quandary.  We’re stuck with a threadbare story that few people really believe -- the “magic of the marketplace” advancing human progress and opportunity – and yet it is simply too useful for elites to abandon.  How else can they justify their entitlements?  These are among the themes explored in an astute new book, The Ethical Economy:  Rebuilding Value After the Crisis  (Columbia University Press, 2013), by sociologist Adam Arvidsson and entrepreneur/scholar Nicolai Peitersen. 

The implicit “social contract” that people have with the reigning institutions of society is coming apart.  As the authors note:  “Three decades of neoliberal policies have separated the market from larger social concerns and relegated the latter to the private sphere, creating a situation where there is no society, only individuals and their families, as Margaret Thatcher famously put it, and no values, only prices.”  Meanwhile, the catastrophic ecological harm being caused by relentless consumerism and economic growth is becoming all too clear, especially as climate change inexorably worsens.

Our “value crisis” is tenacious, say Arvidsson and Peitersen, because we have “no common language by means of which value conflicts can be settled, or even articulated.”  Few people believe in “free markets” and government as benign, mostly responsible influences any more; there is simply too much evidence to the contrary.  And who believes that the Market/State as constituted can solve the many cataclysms on the horizon?

Arvidsson & Peitersen’s ambitious goal is to outline a scenario by which we might come to accept a new, more socially credible justification for socially responsive production and governance.  They want to imagine a “new rationality” that could explain and justify a fair, productive economics and civil polity.  A tall order! 

While I don’t agree with all of their arguments, they do make a penetrating critique of the problems caused by neoliberalism and offer some useful new concepts for understanding how we might imagine a new order.  The Ethical Economy provides a bracing, sophisticated look at these issues.

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Giving Well: What Should Count Besides the Numbers?


Pictured: INEFFICIENT RESOURCE USE (Photo: “Citizens of Abyei Protest Bashir’s Statement” by ENOUGH Project)

It’s pretty common for sites and such devoted to helping you “give better” to ultimately look for some criterion of efficiency. For instance, the first two criteria that GiveWell uses for assessing charities are “strong evidence of impact” and “highly cost-effective.” Similarly, when Giving what we can declares that some charities are 1000 times more effective than others, they focus almost entirely on cost effectiveness. This leads them into some knots on their assessment of some kinds of interventions – for instance, they start by trying to translate things like education into economic improvement (can we measure how many $ of future income $1 of education spending creates?) and political advocacy into health spending (if $1 of spending advocating for bed nets gets the government to spend $3 on bed nets, it may be worth it). I think it’s unsurprising that trying to force things this way leads them to largely throw up their hands on things like education, political advocacy, and emergency relief, though that might be a conversation for another time. But, for instance, I think they’re actually too easy on emergency aid, by their own lights. Emergencies, by definition, are complex and chaotic environments, and so it’s going to be almost impossible for the cost of a disability-adjusted life year (DALY) in an emergency to be lower than the cost of a DALY in a situation where people are simply poor. So long as there is space for additional funding of things like anti-malarials, by the logic of cost-effectiveness, it will almost never make sense to go with, say, Doctors Without Borders over the Against Malaria Foundation.

I think this focus on a narrowly defined notion of efficiency is problematic. I’m not going to give a knock-down argument in a blog post for that, but I’d like to at least make some notes toward broadening the conversation.

The easy way to do this would be to say, “let’s just not focus on outcomes so much.” If I simply have an obligation to help some people and not others, regardless of how effective my help is, that of course makes this whole approach wrong headed. And, in fact, I tend to think that our obligations to help others might look more like Kantian imperfect duties than utilitarian maximizing, but it’d be dirty pool to start with that. I think there are things even the consequentialists should be keeping in mind.

And also, nothing I say here should be construed as saying that efficiency doesn’t matter at all. It’s certainly a worthwhile consideration. Even if you bought an almost wholly deontological picture of your obligations, if organization A accomplished the exact same goals as organization B, but at half the price, you should probably go with A.

Finally, I don’t think the upshot of these considerations is kumbaya-we-should-all-give-wherever-we-please. I do think it’s weird that people I know spend much more time worrying about the marginal efficiency of the charities they give to than they do to the question of whether the marginal dollar of their income should go to charity or personal consumption. It’s a tough question whether I’m doing more “good” by giving $1 to BRAC than by giving it to Oxfam, but it’s almost certain that giving that dollar to either does more good than spending it on a flavor shot in my coffee.*

It’s hard to measure politics.

It’s currently somewhat trendy to measure political advocacy in terms of leveraging your funds, especially since corporations get so much bang for their buck out of lobbying. And that’s something worth thinking about (though I wish people who make this argument would pay more attention to where the money is coming from – e.g., does it make sense to pay for bed nets out of Ghanaian taxes rather than out of my USian pocket?).

But to think that that’s the whole of it impoverishes our notion of politics. Even if you leave aside the inherent value of political participation, the changes that political change can wreak go far deeper than just the number of bed nets provided. I mean, Marx imagined the communist revolution as increasing the material luxuries available to the proletariat, but if you try to reduce it just to lowering the Gini coefficient of a society, you’re missing the point a bit. Politics isn’t just a way of setting spending priorities, it infuses people’s whole lives.

Lest you think this is an airy philosopher’s concern, keep in mind that there are important policy questions that turn on whether or not we think of the value of political systems primarily in terms of material benefits to the population. The whole history of supporting authoritarian governments on the theory that they can make the hard choices needed for economic growth is based on identifying the two.

Even if you do focus just on material change, the important changes may be missed if you focus just on the kind of thing we have a reasonable hope of measuring in a straightforward fashion. Sen has famously argued that democracies don’t have famines – this is a straight-up material benefit to democracy, but it would be at least fiendishly difficult to use that result to calculate the return on investment for each pound sterling contributed to Gandhi’s IndieGoGo campaign. More recently, Peter Buffett posted a somewhat-fluffy-but-makes-a-good-point column arguing that it’s weird to see the same captains of industry and government who create problems like poverty getting together to decide how to spend money to alleviate it. In other words, even if we focus only on material benefits, there’s the question of how many bed nets $1 of spending on lobbying for more bed nets buys, and then there’s the question of how we got to the place where people can’t afford bed nets in the first place.

There’s more to live than living.

I blame the Rawlsian doctrine of primary goods for this one. What about the inherent goods of education and democratic participation? Why should we care less about them than DALYs and the like?

The quick answer is that, if you’re not alive, you can’t enjoy anything else. But as I’ve argued more formally elsewhere, this is a misleading way to look at things. In a nutshell, if we really put an absolute priority on preserving our own lives, we’d all hang out in underground bunkers wrapped in bubble wrap (if you want the longer version, I have a chapter on it in my vaporware book, or you can just go read Butler and look cooler). We accept risks (which in the language of decision theory, just are reductions to our expected number of DALYs) all the time for things we think are important. The argument that one DALY is more important than, say, a child having access to the means to create art is one that we should be having, not one that we should assume away at the start (I mean, it’s a bit weird to me that almost no discussion of charitable giving seems to even notice the discussion about capabilities in the theory of development).

Issues like the symbolism of giving might live here, too. For instance, if I give to a poverty-alleviation organization based in the global South, that might have a good element of “saying” that I don’t think poor people are just victims whose problems need to be solved by white people like me. It might also have non-symbolic benefits mediated by the symbolism, like building organizational capacity in poor communities (often a criticism of aid agencies that swoop in with ready made programs, even if in the short run those may look more “efficient”) – this overlaps with the importance of politics, above – or just changing a hegemonic mindset that can tend to demoralize poorer people.

There’s a difference between badness and injustice.

One intuitively “punchy” reason to be attracted to groups like MSF that work in war zones and the like is precisely the thing that makes it hard for them to compete on pure efficiency measures: they work in war zones and the like.

This starts to push against the assumption that we’re playing nice with the consequentialists, but I don’t think it entirely breaks the rules. It’s at least plausible that there is something worse about someone dying because they got caught in the crossfire of a war than because they happened to catch malaria.

Now, this may pull against some of the considerations about politics, above. If most poverty is injustice rather than bad luck, the gap between the person who dies from a gunshot and the person who dies from poverty-induced malnutrition narrows. But again, I don’t think we get to ignore the conversation (and if you buy the equivalency, you probably should be working for structural political change more than most discussions of charity imply, since the injustice of poverty remains even if you mitigate its effects by giving someone a bed net. If you steal my money, and then someone gives me the P.O.S album I was going to buy with it, it doesn’t morally sanitize the theft).

We might have other special obligations.

This is dicey territory. The push towards efficiency as the overriding moral criterion for giving comes from the – quite powerful – idea that I should measure my action only by how much good it does, and not by morally arbitrary criteria like how close I happen to live to the recipients of my assistance.

But this flattens out plausibly important distinctions. Again, this bends the rule of being nice to consequentialists, but at least pluralist consequentialists can take it seriously.

I might be required to put my thumb on the scale for people whose poor circumstances are in part my fault. For instance, it seems plausible that, as an American, I might have a greater responsibility to help out victims of the wars in Iraq and DR Congo, where my country had a strong hand, than I do to people in some place like (uh… shit, the US has its fingers almost everywhere…) maybe Mali, which is more on the French’s moral account.

I might have special obligations to do good in my own community. For instance, I spend a lot of time these days on prison teaching and (increasingly) on getting involved with violence-reduction in my home city. That’s time that I could be getting a second job and donating the money to buy bed nets.

Now, the worry here is that allowing this kind of consideration opens the door to all sorts of moral abuse. It’s a very compelling worry that at some point, when I’m giving money to help out with re-greening the golf course in my gated community** I’ve crossed the line into just buying luxuries for myself (if I golf) or being morally self-indulgent (if I don’t) under the guise of “charity.” I agree that there needs to be some line here!

But I think it points to the fact that the distinction between consumption and altruism that seems taken for granted by the conversation about giving is too blunt an analytical instrument. It seems right to question whether the prison teaching work does as much good as donating the salary I could earn in that time to the Anti-Malaria Foundation.*** At the same time, it seems odd to count it as just a fancy kind of self-interested “consumption.”****

One utilitarian way around the weirdness here would be to instrumentalize it. Dollar for dollar, my investment in prison teaching is inefficient and sub-optimal. But human nature being what it is, I am more likely to sustain altruistic activities with a face-to-face component, so it makes sense to do this as a way to maximize the good I do in the teeth of human weakness of will. Basically, I’m much more likely to quit the second job where I send money to a faceless organization helping people buy bed nets than I am to quit the work where people tell me directly that I’ve helped them. It’s not right, it’s just a prediction about my own psychology, which is just another utilitarian datum.

But this strikes me as not quite right. I think we need to de-impoverish our conceptual apparatus for thinking about altruism more. I’m not sure we need to “flatten” things like working in one’s own community into either a category of self-interest (where we make a space for them alongside other forms of permissible consumption) or charity (where they probably compete poorly with bed nets). They can be their own category, at least if we’re willing to go at least as far as value-pluralist consequentialism.

And the moral motivations are at least prima facie different. When I give to BRAC, I do it because I think as a relatively affluent person (I AM THE 17%) I am obliged to help out those less fortunate, in a very generic sense (I also think BRAC scores high on some of the less quantifiable stuff above, but I’ve already written about them). I do the prison teaching because I feel like I have a special obligation to make my own community a better community. It’s not clear why these can’t coexist, or even need to be ranked.

Fuck, maybe it is just Kantian imperfect duties. Sorry, utilitarians.

* Blech.

** Fuck gated communities. They’re necrospaces.

*** This also opens the door to the question of why I work as an academic when I could have gotten a higher-paying job as a lawyer or businessman if I’d followed a different path.

**** I mean, yes, inevitable “there’s no such thing as altruism” assholes, I get warm fuzzies from the work. But I get warm fuzzies from donating to BRAC, too. Go read your Hume, but also that argument doesn’t make the distinction here at least.

The Thought of Ivan Illich Today

I had always admired Ivan Illich for his penetrating insights into the pathologies of modern life and the human condition.  Like dormant seeds, they sprouted at just the right time in my life and helped me develop a vocabulary for better understanding the commons. 

The recent conference in Oakland – “After the Crisis:  The Thought of Ivan Illich Today,” on August 1-3 -- gave me an enlarged, fresher understanding of Illich's life and writings. Below I’d like to share some of the highlights of the conference, which can help us recover and rejuvenate Illich's thought for our time. (Illich wrote his most famous works in the 1960s and 1970s, and died in 2002.)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Governor Jerry Brown, a long-time friend of Illich’s, opened the conference with a short talk.  He had met Illich at Green Gulch, a Zen monastery in Marin County, in the 1970s.  Brown noted that Illich’s work cannot be fit into any political, religious or philosophical pigeonhole because.  He ranged freely across artificial disciplinary boundaries, and put a central emphasis on aliveness (which is distinct from “life”).  Much of Illich’s work, said Brown, was about challenging “the certitudes of modernity.”

In a short, just-released collection of four Illich essays, Beyond Economics and Ecology  (Marion Boyars Publishers) Governor Brown writes in the preface that Illich “questioned the very premises of modern life and traced its many institutional excesses to developments in the early and Medieval Church.”  In the 12th century and after, the Church and later the nation-state began to appropriate for themselves Christ’s narratives about salvation and the sacred, and put them to decidedly more secular, worldly use. 

This has culminated in the profound alienation of modern times, in Illich’s view.  As Governor Brown writes, Illich “saw in modern life and its pervasive dependence on commodities and services of professionals a threat to what it is to be human.  He cut through the illusions and allurements to better ground us in what it means to be alive.  He was joyful but he didn’t turn his gaze from human suffering.”

The Oakland conference consisted of ten speakers, most of whom had known Illich as collaborators and sparring partners.  I can’t summarize all of the presentations or capture all of their subtle complexities, but let me excerpt a handful of thoughtful comments.

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Non-Egalitarian Communism (Libertarians Believe in Too Much Government, Part II)

"Home Brews" by J. Mark Dodd on Flickr.

“Home Brews” by J. Mark Dodd on Flickr.

Or, “not-necessarily-egalitarian communism,” perhaps. Basically, I hate to say it, but the hipsters making home brews and artisinal pickles and knitting socks and whatnot have a lot of it right.

Let me explain/thoroughly confuse the matter.

Lots of people who comment on communism – both those who criticize and those who praise, in my experience – and its practicability or lack thereof focus, understandably, on the famous slogan from the Critique of the Gotha Programme:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

In a perfect world, it would say “his or her” or “hir,” but, well, it’s not a perfect world.

I can see why there’s a focus on this, but it’s deeply problematic for understanding the communist argument, I think. And especially problematic for understanding what challenge communist and socialist ideas pose in the current US context.

Focusing excessively on this slogan distorts the conversation because it puts our emphasis on consumption. It makes it sound (to many) as if the communist utopia is defined by the second clause, as a world where everyone can have whatever they want. This raises obvious questions about how we secure the first clause – why will I work if I can get everything I want (or at least everything I need) by sitting on my butt all day?

But that concern reflects a concept of human good that is, I think, alien to Marx, and to most who find his ideas attractive. In particular, it assumes that work is essentially onerous, and so to be avoided whenever possible.  Marx had a different perspective, attested to by something he says just before the more famous quote. He claims that the slogan can only be implemented “after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want.”

In a nutshell, the argument is that each will contribute “according to his/her abilities” not in the hope of some further reward, but just for the sake of making the contribution. In fact, work that one does not see the point of is characteristic of alienated labor, which Marxists hope will disappear in a well-organized society. In other words, we shirk when we don’t see the point of what we’re doing.

Lots of folks will claim evidence of “human nature” on the side of the view that all we want to do is selfishly consume. But the evidence strikes me as sketchy in the extreme.

First, there’s just the anecdotal. What are your hobbies? Me, I’m sitting here writing a blog post when I take breaks from my paid work. I’m not getting paid for it. All I get to “consume” out of it is the satisfaction of creating something that seems halfway worthwhile. I bet you have similar hobbies. Maybe you make model airplanes, or get really good at a sport, or cook, or garden, or prep each year for NaNoWriMo. Even seemingly “passive” activities, like playing video games and whatnot, are often enjoyable because they provide ersatz accomplishment.  You’re not playing the guitar, or shooting terrorists, or growing food, but it’s almost like that. I mean, this is the answer to the seeming paradox of games like FarmVille – why would someone spend their free time doing a simulation of repetitive labor? Because at least it’s repetitive labor that gives you a sense of creating something, and so many people seem to be desperate for that in their real lives.

As shocking as this sounds, a whole lot of the “guy who failed all of his classes because he was playing WoW all the time” horror stories are really just about a dude who simply didn’t like his classes very much. This was never some dystopian mind control scheme by Blizzard. The games just filled a void. 

In fact, part of the distortion of the whole consumption-focus might be that it’s not at all clear that there’s a such thing as pleasurable consumption on its own. Rather, I think Aristotle got it right – pleasure is part of an activity which develops or exemplifies a human excellence (1174a15-1176a30/X 4-5).  Or, another way to put it, we always take pleasure in production, not consumption – things that seem like consumption (just listening to music, say) are really a kind of production (refinement of our appreciation of music) and treating them as a separate category distorts and degrades them.*

Practical upshot: if we think of consumption as its own thing, we’re going to get human nature very wrong. We’re going to look at the fact that people need certain kinds of material goods to keep their bodies working, and see increasing material goods as a means, rather than an end. We’re going to give people only some kinds of means of production: mp3s and not music education. We’re going to fetishize the product rather than the production: why would anyone want to tell stories around a campfire when the plots are likely to be derivative re-hashes of great works?

It’s not that what we call “consumption” is not production at all – it’s just that it’s a very thin slice of it. But we have a society in which is very easy to mistake that part of pleasure for the whole, and then end up unsatisfied. And it leads to two mistaken ideas about the economy. The first is that people will only produce if you give them the means to consume as an incentive. So, “human nature” means that we have to have gross material inequality. Bzzt. Human nature may well be – probably is – at least moderately self-centered and pleasure-seeking. But it’s a distortion of a world of alienated labor to think that being selfish means seeking only consumption. The pleasures of creating, including creating things that are of value to others because they can build their own creations on them, are very real and powerful.

The second is that, even when we try to help out the less fortunate, we risk conceiving our help very narrowly. Consumption is the slice of production that requires us, the powerful, to cede mostly some food and cheap plastic physical objects, but very little in terms of freedom, control, and respect. It’s a lot easier for me to say, “here’s $10, go buy some mp3s” than it is to say, “let’s democratize this workplace so you get a say in what kinds of things we produce instead of just which products you’re going to buy.”

It’s this misunderstanding that, e.g., leads Yglesias to grossly misunderstand class warfare.** In a nutshell, Yglesias argues that it’s class warfare when Obama wants to redistribute some income towards the poor and the GOP wants to redistribute some income towards the wealthy. Sure, if you’re poor, and those are your only two choices, Team Obama.

But that’s not class war. Maybe it’s an intra-class war, between two factions with different ideas of how to keep control. But the basic power structures remain the same: the means of production are privately owned and subject to more or less unlimited accumulation, concentrating decisions about what kinds of production are to be undertaken in the hands of a relatively small elite. We do call internecine fights among the folks who control those things “class war,” but it’s about as meaningful to do so as if we looked at the African theatre of World War I and called it “decolonization.”

This is where, I think, people tend to get misled by Marx’ slogan. “Communists want to take your hard-earned consumption and give it to the lazy!” That sounds horrible, and that’s how it sounds if you think of a) the point of work to be to gain the means of consumption and b) communism as basically about changing who gets the means of consumption.

But it’s not. In principle, I think, we might have a non-egalitarian communism. What’s central to communism is not the pattern of distribution of consumption, that very narrow kind of human activity going under the name. Rather, what’s central is that decisions about how to deploy the various material necessities for production available to a society are made in a way that involves broad social participation.***

It could be, that if we were all getting together as a society (or a syndicate, or whatever), we would decide to distribute various physical products in an inegalitarian way. Nothing would stop someone from saying, “look, I don’t want any of this stuff, let’s give it to that Bill Gates guy.”

An egalitarian or needs-based (let’s bracket arguments about whether they’re different) way of distributing physical goods isn’t, conceptually speaking, the only way that a social conversation about how to use the means of production might go. But I think Marx is led to his slogan because he thinks we would be stupid to have it go any other way.

If everyone was making the decision together, why would we give someone more power over decisions of what we should produce when he didn’t work any harder than anyone else? If we didn’t see ourselves as in competition for the only kind of production/consumption we were allowed, why would we, as human beings, decide to let someone starve or go without medical attention or dignity, just so we could produce things we don’t even care about very much? I think Marx is optimistic enough to think that we wouldn’t. If we were freed from the antisocial and stunted pursuit of “consumption” by being allowed to be full partners in production, we wouldn’t have to give according to our abilities and take only according to our needs, but we would.****

It’s only a combination of the (maybe true) thought that human nature is eternally somewhat self-centered with the (completely false) thought that self-interest consists in maximum consumption that makes our current way of doing things look free, and something like libertarianism look like an increase in “freedom.” That’s a swindle – the current system employs huge resources on one side in a class war (that’s largely triumphant), securing power in the hands of a pretty small elite and giving them unlimited rights to perpetuate that power. Pretending that more “freedom” lies on the side of your relatively powerless consumption being more determined by your individual worth to those who control the means of production (or, for that matter, lying on the side of your relatively powerless share being a more equal slice and less dependent on that individual worth) and that there’s a big fight over it hides how limited much freedom actually is.



* This may be related to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “desiring-production,” but I’m not sure I fully understand that, so don’t take my word for it.

** Yglesias, if he gave two shits about what I thought, would probably (sincerely) say something like, “it was kind of a joke, dude.” But I’m not inclined to let him entirely off the hook – he seems to basically have liberal egalitarian intuitions, but be under the impression that you can satisfy them by post hoc redistribution by a welfare state. But Yglesias was a philosophy major, and so he should know that Rawls, father of contemporary liberal egalitarian philosophical thought, realized that laissez-faire capitalism was incompatible with justice, no matter how much redistribution you do after the fact.

*** State vs. non-state communism/socialism arguments, it seems to me, start here. The question is basically whether there could be anything recognizable as a state that reflected broad social participation or not.

**** He’s also maybe sneaky. What’s a need? Some are obvious, but I think he’s smart enough to realize that once everyone’s belly is full and nakedness covered, what you “need” is going to be defined in terms of the social system of value you participate in and help create. The liberties of the ancients and the liberties of the moderns have to be integrated all the way to the base of the system. Or, if that’s impossible, we’ve got a big problem that we need to face head-on instead of pretending it away.

My Just-So Story Brings All the Boys to the Yard (Libertarians Believe in Too Much Government, Part 1)


Farm Auction by Bill and Vicki Tracey on Flickr.

Imagine a group of people living before the advent of the state, or really even before any sort of organized society. Miraculously, these are people who manage to be born and grow up and make autonomous choices nonetheless, but leave that aside for now.

Let’s not imagine that, because there is nothing like a state or society yet, that there are no moral rules in place – that’s silly. There are certain general principles of right action that every normal person at least basically adheres to. No one is a moral saint, but if anyone is raped, or wantonly killed, or abandons an infant to exposure, or what have you, people are outraged.

One central moral principle in this state of nature is that we all have a right to feed and shelter ourselves. This is such a basic necessity of life that it just seems obvious to me, and if you don’t see it this way then I don’t think we can have a conversation. It simply beggars the mind that we could expect someone to starve herself to death or die of exposure when the means to avoid this are available to her.*

So, people begin to hunt, forage, and farm to feed themselves. Yay!

But, of course, not everyone wants to be a hunter/forager/farmer. So eventually some people say to each other, “you know, I am tired of how farming (let’s just say farming) takes up so much of my time, and anyway, you are a much better farmer than I am. What say we make a deal – I will spend my days writing epic poems, and you spend your days farming. At the end, I will recite my poetry to you, and you will give me some of the food you grow. Then we are both fed and entertained.”


Over time, as farming techniques spread and people realize more efficient means, and see the advantages of consolidating their farming, we start to see mergers. Less productive farmers will turn their land over to more productive farming associations. Sure, there will be some people who continue farming even though they could do something else, just because they enjoy it, farming is hard, often tedious labor, so most people do not. Eventually each region is served by a dominant nutritive association that organizes farming throughout the region, having absorbed all the other farmers who matter. Everyone else spends their time writing poetry or whatever other socially valuable work that they do.

But eventually the dominant nutritive associations have to do something about the smallholders. Their small farms break up the associations’ ability to farm efficiently and effectively, and endanger the ability of everyone to be able to get fed. So everyone would agree that, will they or nil they, smallholders will eventually need to join the nutritive associations and should not be permitted to farm their own land, at least not if it interferes with the ability to feed the population well.

We have now achieved an ultraminimal state. The nutritive association asserts a monopoly on the production of food, as it must do to ensure that the growing population can get fed appropriately.

But now we have a problem. What about people who cannot or will not pay the nutritive association for food? Are they to starve? We can’t have them starting up as smallholders; we’ve got to do something else. This isn’t any deep ownership issue – we just can’t have them trying to grow food where other people are trying to grow food, because it won’t work. Or trying to stop the association from growing food on land they’re growing food on. We’re talking pure use-conflict.

Clearly the solution is to bring everyone into the nutritive associations. Those who can pay, but would prefer not to, must pay. For those who cannot afford to pay, since we’re saying we don’t want them trying to subsist on their own, we tax everyone to sustain them.

Would we go beyond this minimal state, where the only legitimate function of the state is to ensure that everyone is fed? It’s not clear that we would. For instance, would we engage in redistribution of violence, so that people who are near those who use violence could be protected by some state agency?

Well, the nutritive associations could deal with much of this already. Anyone who interfered in the production or distribution of nutrition could have nutrition withheld. That is, after all, one of the few cases in which violating someone’s right to be fed would be justifiable. You can’t swing a sword if you’re starving! Beyond that, while it is unfortunate that someone may die from violence, it is not clear that anyone – aside from the violent person – violates any of their rights by failing to intervene. People might voluntarily band together to, say, shame the violent, or protect those vulnerable to violence, but it’s not at all clear that this is a legitimate function of an organization that controls a legitimate monopoly on food.


* In case you are either satire- or Nozick-impaired, this is an analogue of the basic position that self-ownership plays in libertarian theory. My principle strikes me as just as plausible, and has an even hoarier pedigree in Hobbes.

Political Economy of Consent (Notes Toward a)

Migrant Workers and Cucumbers, Blackwater VA - via Bread for the World

Migrant Workers and Cucumbers, Blackwater VA – via Bread for the World

This is the germ of an idea, and it’s going to be a bit choppy since it’s not fully formed. Imma pull a Maimonides and ask you to assume that anywhere I seem to be clearly talking out of my ass it’s just because I totally have splendid ideas but I’m not putting them across well. Point them out and I will steal your views and claim that’s what I meant all along.

I know, I know, I’m aiming for that very prestigious publication in Radical Philosophy. I’m sure I’m also rehashing things people besides me have already said; I’m just starting to mull this stuff over, and I haven’t done a proper lit review yet. Take me to task for that when it’s a peer-reviewed paper.

Also, I should probably put a trigger warning here – nothing graphic, but stuff that may be unpleasant for folks to read may come up.  And if you’re my parents or something (hi Dad) you may not want to read more because there’s going to be an ill-considered detour into sex work and stuff.

Here are the basics, what “everyone knows.” Bear with me, I’m being pedantic because I’m trying to find my footholds.

There are plenty of things that, normally, I can’t do to you. Kill you, have sex with you, take your stuff, cut into your body with scalpels, inject you with chemicals.

But I can do all of those things if you consent.  At least arguably. We might quibble about euthanasia, for instance, but your consent at least morally sanitizes – on the standard theory – lots of things that would otherwise be wrong for me to do to you.

I’ve been thinking about the adequacy of this picture a bunch lately, and this morning my thoughts on it were pricked by reading Hedges’ and Sacco’s account of the conditions for migrant farm workers in Imokalee FL in their Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.  Workers in Imokalee are subject to all sorts of indignities and abuses – low pay, crummy living conditions, sexual harassment, etc.

Some of the stories they tell are of people who are simply not consenting to their treatment. They tell of a few egregious cases in which people were literally chained up, locked in, kidnapped and coerced to work. But even leaving those aside, there are plenty of folks in conditions that are at least pretty grim and undesirable.

One sort of story about those folks would be: but they consented. They work jobs for very low pay, some of them below minimum wage, OK – but no one put a gun to their heads and made them take those jobs, and no one owes them a job. They consented to take a job that someone consented to give to them. They are charged very high rates for sub-standard housing, but that’s what the market will bear. If it’s not worth $50/week for them to live in a shabby trailer with a bunch of other migrant workers, they should find another job.


The standard reply would seem to be something like: but they didn’t really consent. Sure, migrant workers aren’t subject to gun-to-the-head coercion, but the are subject to all sorts of, let’s say, pressures on their decisions that undermine our notion that they’ve consented. Florida is pretty hostile to collective bargaining. Many of the workers are undocumented, and so (reasonably) worry that if they bargained hard they’d just be turned in to INS and deported. Even aside from that, there’re more workers than there is work, which will drive things down to a pretty raw level, in accord with the iron law of wages. Maybe even worse, as Hedges and Sacco point out, because dead workers can be replaced. If you’re desperate enough to be grasping a job that only maybe will give you enough to live on, other things are probably going badly in your life that people can exploit.

I’m becoming less sure that this standard reply is the right one, though.  For one thing, it’s subject to a slippery-slope-style response from the other side. OK, the libertarianish person may say, but where do we draw the line? Given their druthers, everyone would spend their days perfecting the pastimes that they have harbored based solely on the fact that they make them smile and sound dope. And then we’d take whatever they wanted from everyone else. Everyone does plenty of things all day only because of some outside pressure to do so, and where do you draw the line between the migrant worker in Imokalee and the office drone working a 9-5 and the professor writing a paper that he doesn’t really care about because he needs to pad his tenure file? COMMUNIST.

For the other thing, well, let’s consider one of the worse things about Imokalee. According to Hedges and Sacco’s informants, sexual harassment is pretty common for migrant worker women. They heard stories that women were routinely asked to give sexual favors to managers in return for continuing to be chosen for work.

Blech, but what about consent? I’m a farm manager, I don’t owe anyone a job, right? I can not pick up a migrant to work just because I don’t like the way s/he looks. Why is it more wrong for me not to pick her up just because she won’t sleep with me?  And if she does sleep with me, isn’t it consensual?  How is it less consensual than the woman who works long hours in the backbreaking sun so that she’ll get called in again tomorrow?

Blech. I don’t even like working through this position in devil’s advocate mode, but bear with me another minute. Let me bear with myself another minute.

The problem is not that I’m trying to say, “OK, it’s cool beans that women are pushed into doing this.” The problem is that I’m saying it’s not clear that consent lets us make the cut. Consent is usually understood in terms of the presence or absence of pressure, and ex hypothesi the external pressures on the sexual-favor-granting and the backbreaking-labor-doing are the same. If one’s consensual, it looks like the other is (and vice versa, COMMUNIST).

Let me be as clear as I can be once again. I absolutely think that things like asking someone to exchange sexual favors for the privilege of continuing to work is awful and wrong. My concern with consent is that it does not adequately capture the wrongness, and the concept threatens to hide other wrong things. If you read this as “oh, consent doesn’t matter, let me go abuse people” you are getting the message very very wrong.

One way to go would be to infer additional pressure from the nature of the act supposedly consented to. This is, e.g., one way that you might argue against prostitution (or suicide). Even if we cannot point to some external factor that differs between, e.g., the situation of a woman (or man) who goes into prostitution and a seemingly-similarly-situated woman who chooses to do something else, we might think that the mere fact that one has chosen (or “chosen”) to go into prostitution demonstrates that she is suffering from some additional external pressure that invalidates her consent.

Fuck yeah, mostly.

Fuck yeah, mostly.

This is a bit of a caricature of the actual argument in the feminist literature, which tends to be able to point to particular structures that provide at least a plausible explanation for why prostitution might be “special,” instead of resting all the weight on the presumed badness of the profession itself. But my sense is that the context of discovery is not too far off from this story – even when we’re looking at issues specific to women, women are subject to all sorts of patriarchial pressures that distort their context of choices that have nothing to do with sex or prostitution. While feminist thinkers rightly decry many of those other things, sex and pornography tend to get special attention.* And it’s hard to avoid it seeming like the deep intuition that prostitution is wrong comes first and theory is built to try to explain and justify that intuition.

If the intuition is correct, this is not in any way an unreasonable thing to do – it’s just part of the standard reflective equilibrium approach to doing ethics.

But it’s also clear that there are theoretical and practical dangers lurking. Practically, it’s easy to not do the hard work of reflective equilibrium and just turn it into rationalization. In this particular case, I worry a bit that if we get too differentially horrified by the sexual favors, we’ll blunt our horror at the other stuff.

On a theoretical level, it’s not clear that consent is doing any interesting work here any more (this is a result that would probably be welcomed by a number of feminist theorists, mind you). We can just skip straight to the badness of giving sexual favors you don’t enjoy.

But now this opens up new and terrible vistas to our gaze.

Importantly, “sexual favors you don’t enjoy” underplays what’s going on here. As Brison puts it, theft isn’t gift-giving minus consent and rape isn’t just sex minus consent. Or, if you prefer something a bit less academic, someone who talks about how cool it would be to have a pill that would make a woman forget that you raped her is probably (culpably) forgetting to include the part of the fantasy where his target is “crying in terror, not to mention resisting.” If we imagine that the women Hedges and Sacco were told about were giving blow-jobs that are exactly like the ones you might get from a woman who’s into you except inside her brain she’s kvetching about it, we’re leaving something out. Even if there’s no overt force, we’re leaving out the look on her face, the act of intimidation to get her to do it, the trauma she may suffer afterwards, lots of really shitty stuff.

But, if we include all of that stuff, two things. First, would consent make it OK? I mean, if we try to imagine the opposite case – sexual harassment plus consent, I’m not sure I can even imagine something coherent. I can imagine things that are sort of like it, like “let’s role-play that I’m a migrant worker…” but that’s different. I’m not being facetious about it being coherent – there’s not clearly any magical moment of “consent” that is distinct from all the stuff that’s different between the overt act of rape or sexual coercion vs. sex. That’s what strikes many people as a bit too rigid about the infamous Antioch College sexual offense policy.** If you talk to a woman (or man), get to know her a bit, invite her to come back to your place, put on some music, talk feminist theory, eventually start making out, she’s enthusiastic about it, etc. etc. the normal “read” of that situation is that consent has been given, even if there is no act of saying “I consent to this.” You can’t have that surrounding pleasant activity and the surrounding awful activity of rape.

Second, why are we even talking about consent? What does “she didn’t consent” add to the badness of what happened?

This brings me back to all the non-sexual stuff about Imokalee workers. I don’t think consent sheds much light on the badness of many of the things that we’re inclined to say are bad because they’re non-consensual. It doesn’t have to be sex. Murdering someone and euthanizing them are typically pretty different things, even if we don’t focus on the moment of saying, “please kill me.”

And I worry that consent is a way of setting up an Agamben-style “state of exception.” We invoke consent precisely when we are talking about evils and abuses of the person. I don’t say that I have “consensual sex” with my wife. I mean, I do, but I just say that I have sex with her. I insist on its consensual nature only if there is some reason I am concerned to prove to you that it isn’t rape. And if that’s the concern, you should probably make your judgments based on something other than my protestations of consent.

Invocations of consent are a sort of ticket into a zone of suspension of the normal rules for dealing with human beings – consent is a “get out of jail free” card for doing things that would normally be wrong. In the case of workers (sex- or otherwise) it is a way of saying, “these horrors are beyond your judgment.” No one invokes consent when talking about my job as a professor. We invoke consent when we’re talking about people with jobs we can’t imagine anyone would want to do, when they are in situations that make us recoil and wonder how we can extricate them. Invocations of consent are aimed at anesthetizing this response.***


So far, I’m assuming that there is no important inner act of will. I’ve tried to at least sketch why I don’t think it’s necessary for the important arguments and why it can’t really find a place in them.

I’m influenced here by Brandom’s famous paper, Freedom and Constraint by Norms (sorry for the JStor link, I didn’t find a freely available copy). In a nutshell, Brandom argues that calling something “free willed” is a purely practical judgment. There’s no metaphysical will that you have or you don’t, and we don’t really discover that, e.g., humans have free will but rocks don’t.  Rather, we don’t treat rocks as having free will because the most successful practices we have don’t involve free-willed rocks. Ask some stones to build a house versus mortar them together yourself and see which works better.

This applies to people, too. Treat drug addicts as evil-doers who need to be punished and oops, you’ll end up with an endless drug war and prisons groaning under the weight.

As Brandom anti-pithily puts it,

The force of the claim that the difference between the social [the realm of the free willed] and the objective [the realm of the causal explanation] is a difference in how they are treated by some community (by us) rather than an objective matter about which we could be right or wrong is that differences in convenience of one kind or another are the only differences to be accommodated here. (193)

This provides an answer to the “slippery slope” worry about recognizing constraints on consent that I discussed above. There’s no place on the slope between the pressures on professors and the pressures on slaves that we have to stop. It’s just that our social practices become more and more strained as we try to either treat professors as coerced or slaves as free.

But wait. Wait.

Who’s “us?” Convenient for whom?

I think we think we’ve climbed the slippery slope here when we’ve slid to the bottom (maybe it’s an Escher slope?).

The doctrine of consent is a social practice that creates sacrifice zones full of people we want to exploit. If they were full and equal participants in our social practices, we wouldn’t feel strain and we wouldn’t invoke consent. We invoke consent because otherwise our moral practices threaten to inconvenience us – people like me, relatively affluent, male, white, educated, powerful, comfortable – with nausea and horror. Granting that someone can give consent is often taken to be a way of treating them as human, but I don’t think it is. Treating someone as human is how to treat them as human – invoking their consent too often looks like an excuse for not doing that.

This is why I talk about this being some thoughts/notes toward a “political economy” of consent. I suspect that the ways in which we talk about consent and non-consent are generated by and reinforce a particular distribution of power, economic and otherwise. Framing work as inherently consensual lets me eat cheap tomatoes and enlists some of the very people who make do with crappy conditions so I can have inexpensive consumer goods in the defense of my privilege. If we mark out a zone of sex that is not “work” it has as at least a side effect the impact of making clear that the rules of work that brutalize all non-genital areas of the body are beyond reproach.


* It bears noting that the conviction that sex work is (overwhelmingly/necessarily) bad for the sex workers is only one strand of feminist critique on the issue. For MacKinnon, e.g., the problem is just as much that pornography and sex work communicates and normalizes a misogynistic image of women, and thereby harms other women than the sex workers. For many feminist critics of sex work, it would be an evil even if all sex workers themselves were treated well, enjoyed the work, were not subject to any kind of coercion, etc. I’m only ignoring this line of argument because I’m focusing on a different aspect.

** I don’t agree with people who think the Antioch policy is ridiculous. Lots of things that fly in the context of, say, my relationship with my wife are dangerous to rely on with someone you know less well. Antioch’s policy may err on the side of the cautious, and I suspect it was often violated in letter by committed couples, but seem like a reasonable set of rules for a context in which stakes are high, people are prone to pressure, and communication can be difficult. I’d certainly rather be able to appeal to “the rules” to force communication than have people, as we know people do, go along with something they don’t really approve of because they feel awkward standing up for themselves. And that’s even leaving aside things like extreme drunkenness, etc. that the policy would help blunt the impact of.

*** I don’t want to imply that the response is always appropriate, particularly in the case of sex work. If my points here apply to sex work, as opposed to just being partly inspired by reflection on the ways in which it has come under critique and been defended, it would be in a more limited way. I think the question of whether sex work is consensual (as I am arguing it is for all work) is tangential to the question of whether it’s right or wrong. The argument should be over what life is like for the sex workers (and possibly whatever knock-on impacts it has on other men and women). Most people, myself included, don’t have a very clear picture about what life is like for actual sex workers. All I’m saying is a) if we’re going to pass judgment one way or the other, we should do it by starting with looking in detail at what life is like, and it’s probably going to be very different for different sex workers; we can’t short-cut that investigation by making any sort of transcendental argument about the nature of sex. Once we’ve done that, b) let’s not cheat by invoking consent on behalf of people who look like their sex work is miserable for them or invoking secret non-consent on people who look like it’s a good profession for them. I don’t have settled views on how many people are likely to be in either of those categories, and I think it’d be irresponsible for me to have them.