Today we travel to a future where we rethink what an economy looks like.
- Ilana Strauss, a journalist and producer at National Geographic’s podcast, “Overheard.”
- Dr. Niels Thygesen, an associate professor at the Copenhagen Business School.
- Dr. James Parisot, a researcher at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley and author of How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West.
- Dr. Anna Grear, a professor of law at Cardiff University and author of The Great Awakening: New Modes of Life Amidst Capitalist Ruins.
- Ricardo Nuñez, the director of economic democracy at the Sustainable Economies Law Center.
- Dr. Sara Nelson, an economic policy fellow at the University of British Columbia.
- Dean Spade, an activist, professor at Seattle University School of Law, and author of Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next).
- Dr. Hyunseok Hwang, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Houston.
- Monica Byrne, a novelist, playwright, and author of The Actual Star.
- Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition
- Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies
- Sorting Out Commodities: How Capitalist Value Is Made Through Gifts
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
- The Myth of the Barter Economy
- Barter and Economic Disintegration
- The Gift Economy and the Development of Sustainability
- Humans naturally cooperative, altruistic, social
- The Real Lord of the Flies
- Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development
- Capitalism Made This Mess, and This Mess Will Ruin Capitalism
- GoFundMe CEO: One-Third of Site’s Donations Are to Cover Medical Costs
- Resilience and the neoliberal counter-revolution: from ecologies of control to production of the common
- The History of Wages for Housework
- The Lockdown Showed How the Economy Exploits Women
- The True Cost of American Food
- Capitalism isn’t working anymore. Here’s how the pandemic could change it forever
- Lessons from resource management by indigenous Maori in New Zealand: Governing the ecosystems as a commons
- Website lets users simulate spending Jeff Bezos’ billions
- ‘Solidarity, Not Charity’: A Visual History of Mutual Aid
- The Role of Philanthropy in Reproducing Inequality
- No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy
- Think Outside the Boss: How to Create a Worker-Owned Business
- List of Mutual Aid Networks
- 100 Percent Renewable? One Danish Island Experiments with Clean Power
- Are We Really Living in an ‘Infodemic’? Science Suggests a Different Story
- Threatened: A new podcast from Bird Note about stories from around the world about people who are taking action on behalf of our fragile ecosystems and the birds that depend on them.
- BetterHelp: Affordable, private online counseling. Anytime, anywhere. Flash Forward listeners: get 10% off your first month at betterhelp.com/flashforward
- Skillshare: Skillshare is an online learning community where millions come together to take the next step in their creative journey, with thousands of inspiring classes for creative and curious people, on topics including illustration, design, photography, video, freelancing, and more. Start with two free months of Premium Membership, and explore your creativity at Skillshare.com/flashforward.
- Shaker & Spoon: A subscription cocktail service that helps you learn how to make hand-crafted cocktails right at home. Get $20 off your first box at shakerandspoon.com/ffwd.
- Tab for a Cause: A browser extension that lets you raise money for charity while doing your thing online. Whenever you open a new tab, you’ll see a beautiful photo and a small ad. Part of that ad money goes toward a charity of your choice! Join team Advice For And From The future by signing up at tabforacause.org/flashforward.
- Tavour: Tavour is THE app for fans of beer, craft brews, and trying new and exciting labels. You sign up in the app and can choose the beers you’re interested in (including two new ones DAILY) adding to your own personalized crate. Use code: flashforward for $10 off after your first order of $25 or more.
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Flash Forward is hosted by Rose Eveleth and produced by Julia Llinas Goodman. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. The voices from the future this episode were provided by
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! Head to www.flashforwardpod.com/support for more about how to give. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
Transcript provided by Emily White & The Wordary
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S7E09 – “What Could A Better Economy Look Like?”
[Flash Forward intro music – “Whispering Through” by Asura, an electronic, rhythm-heavy piece]
Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I am your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future. Every episode we take on a specific possible… or sometimes not-so-possible future scenario. We always start with a little field trip into the future to check out what is going on, what we’re talking about that day, and then we teleport back to modern times, 2021 or whatever year it is when you’re listening to this, to talk to experts about how that world that we just heard might actually go down. Got it? Great!
This episode we’re starting in the year 2064.
FICTION SKETCH BEGINS
[a crowd mingling in a large auditorium; quiets as music starts]
[cheerful acoustic guitar music]
AUDIO TOUR GUIDE:
Hello and welcome to the Museum of Natural and Unnatural History’s audio guide through our latest exhibit: Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees. We’re very excited to have you back in our museum after the recent closures and renovations! While our doors have been closed, our expert curators have been hard at work on this exhibit featuring the past, present, and future of fiduciary philosophies.
Please enter. The doors aren’t nearly as heavy as they look.
But they were repurposed from the safe at the New York Federal Reserve Bank, which was occupied in the 2034 uprisings and eventually transitioned to the housing units you might know of today. Did you know that at one point in time, these doors guarded about 25% of the world’s gold reserves? Truly incredible.
Inside you’ll see a taste of your journey through the exhibit. We’ll be covering early economies, which actually don’t look all that different from our own today. Then the exhibit splits into two long corridors, showing the dual economies that existed for the rich and the poor for centuries. We recommend traveling through both and paying attention to the stark differences.
At the end of each is a rumination on change. This room is the most upsetting and chaotic in the exhibit, so please take your time to get used to it. There is beauty and joy inside, but also terror and upheaval. Some of you may remember the transition from capitalism; perhaps you were even on the front lines. If so, please record a message for our oral history project. I’ll be sure to point it out when we get there.
And at the end, you’ll find our Visions for the Future Pod, where we can collectively dream up new ways of creating, trading, and sustaining one another. Perhaps you’re hoping to buy a new car, or caviar. Maybe you’re looking for a four-star daydream or a football team. Or perhaps you have a baby and you need cheese for your egg. No matter what you need, we now have far more sustainable ways to get it.
So let us begin our journey, shall we? It all starts about 400,000 years ago, in the Olorgesailie Basin in southern Kenya.
[music fades out]
FICTION SKETCH END
This episode started out with a suggestion from listener Claire Maske, who wrote in asking about gift economies. She wrote: “I’m currently reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, and I think her idea of the gift economy… would be a great idea for a potential future.” And Julia and I were like, “Yes, this is a good idea. Braiding Sweetgrass is an amazing book that you should all check out. We should do a gift economy episode!”
But as we were digging into this, and researching, and talking to people, and exploring this idea, I think we realized that we have to get through a lot more basic questions about how economies even form. Like, how do you go from one kind of economy to another? Does that require total chaos and collapse? Does it happen quickly or slowly? Does one economic system have to dominate the entire globe, or can you do things more locally or regionally?
So today we’re going to do a kind of quick and dirty tour through a few big ideas in economics, and then we’re going to look at a couple of alternatives that might offer interesting ways forward that are more just, equitable, and sustainable than what we have today.
Let’s start with the story of how we got to where we are today. How did our current economy happen? Let’s start with money. How did money get invented?
So the story is, you know, before we had money, we were just sort of stuck in this unfortunate situation where we had to trade with each other all the time.
This is Ilana Strauss, a producer at National Geographic’s podcast, Overheard.
So person number one would be a butcher and they’d have meat. Person number two knew how to make furniture. And if you were someone who had meat and you wanted a chair, but the chair maker didn’t need meat at the moment, you just couldn’t get a chair. It was super inconvenient and everyone was just sitting around unable to get things.
But of course, humans are quite inventive; we’ve talked about that a lot. So we figured out a solution. Money!
Money is this amazing invention that comes around where everyone, kind of, has money and you can use that as a go-between. You can say, “Hey, I want a chair right now. I don’t have anything you want, but here you go. Here’s some money. You can use that to buy eggs or whatever else you want and it’ll all come around in the future.”
Ta-da! Great story. The problem is that it is just that. A story. It’s not true. For decades, anthropologists have been studying the economic systems of different cultures throughout history. In 1985, Dr. Caroline Humphrey pointed out that no one had ever actually documented an example of a pure barter economy.
Nobody operates on this barter system. It’s just not a real thing that anyone uses because, you know, like you said, it would be so inconvenient. Why would any… People weren’t just walking around, like, walking into walls before we came up with modern ideas, you know?
Instead, one system that we know people operated under was a gift economy. Now, these things might sound like the same thing. Bartering and gifting; what’s the difference?
A gift economy is much more flexible, right? First of all, people aren’t just automatrons in a vacuum, right? It’s probably a friend or a family member, someone in your community, someone you have a relationship with besides just this purely economic eBay-style thing. And if someone around you needs something, you’re going to want to help them out.
If the butcher needs a chair and you make chairs, the butcher is probably your neighbor, and you have a bunch of chairs because you make chairs and, you know, you just give them a chair and you know that your community in general is always helping you, right? Like, the woman down the street gave you eggs last week, and you know, you got meat from the butcher a month ago.
You probably already do this with your friends, and family, and community, right? If somebody that you know needs something, you help them out, and you know that if you need something in the future, they’re going to help you out. You’re not keeping a running ledger and you’re not making one-to-one trades each time.
DR. NIELS THYGESEN:
What I mean by gift economy is pretty simple. It’s the obligation to give and it’s the obligation to receive. It has nothing to do with Christmas Eve. Gift giving is an economy that, in principle and in practice, can produce incredible value.
This is Dr. Niels Thygesen an Associate Professor at the Copenhagen Business School.
And I’m very interested in how to create welfare because it’s a big thing in the Nordic countries to create good welfare and good governance.
So let’s say that you’re subscribed to National Geographic, and I’m subscribed to the New York Times. I would like to read National Geographic, and you would like to read the New York Times, and so we offer them up to one another.
Then the hard value is certainly converted into a multiplying value because one paper plus one paper means four papers. Because you have access to two papers and I have access to two papers, that means four. But we started out only with two, so one plus one is four.
But it’s not just additional hard value that gift economies can create. They create social value as well.
We are worth something for each other and that needs to be celebrated once in a while because we value community. And you find a lot of communities around the world based on these kind of value productions. The next time you meet your neighbor, the one that you exchange resources with, you are, of course, very, very nice to that person.
We’re going to come back to some modern examples of gift economies in a little bit. It turns out, they’re not only still around, but possibly a really good model for the future. But despite gift economies being well documented in the past and present, this story of barter leading to money persists.
There are probably a couple of reasons for that. The first is that one of the main people who popularized the barter idea was Adam Smith, a very famous and influential economist. You’ve probably heard his name before. And the second is that we’re not always the best at imagining alternatives to our current ways of doing things.
We live in a society where we use money and, you know, a barter economy is sort of the most similar thing to that. Like, we imagine if money just disappeared, what’s the most similar thing we could do? It’s barter.
And maybe you’re wondering like, “Okay, why does it matter that this story is wrong? Who cares?”
I think part of it is what it says about human nature. You know, if we imagine we’re in this world of cold-hearted calculations, and that’s the way it’s always been and the way it always must be, then we’re likely just going to keep perpetuating that, you know? We’re not going to think of other creative solutions that might think of humans, not just as like, I don’t know, entirely selfish machines.
And that’s been such a dominant economic theory for a few decades. This really, like, hardcore neo-liberal, everyone-out-for-themselves, greed-is-good kind of thing. And you know, that kind of relies on this idea that, like, that’s what’s natural and that’s what’s best. But if that’s not the only way, if it’s not necessarily natural, if it’s not best in, at least, all circumstances, then we can kind of be more creative and think of different ways to operate.
We’ve talked about this before on the show, about how research shows that humans are inherently cooperative, not selfish or greedy. About how during a disaster it’s not everybody for themselves, but rather we see people coming together to help each other. Remember the book Lord of the Flies? A similar incident actually happened in real life, except in that version, the opposite thing happened as what’s in the book. The boys banded together and helped each other survive.
The stories that we tell about these kinds of things matter because they make it easier, or harder, to imagine other ways of working and living. Today, for example, I think it’s really hard for a lot of people to imagine any alternative to the economic system we live in, which we’re going to broadly call global capitalism. And in fact, famous leaders have quite literally said there is no alternative. Margaret Thatcher used those exact words “There Is No Alternative” as a slogan.
DR. JAMES PARISOT:
It feels inescapable because it’s such a powerful force, right? It’s hard to imagine any kind of… It’s like that with every generation. And I think it’s something about the way that whenever we live in a certain time period, we take everything in that time period as normal, as natural.
This is Dr. James Parisot, a researcher in the political science department at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the author of How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West. The book looks at how capitalism took off in the United States, and it’s a lot more complicated than I realized. First of all, it took over 200 years for it to really happen. In fact, many early American settlers did not want to be completely dependent on the market.
So for example, a small farmer in, say, the colonial American West, what was West at the time, would have a household where most of production was just to take care of household needs. They’d sell a few things on the market, but they didn’t want to be dependent on the market. To be dependent on the market was to be seen as not free.
In the South, the slave trade has been described by some historians as another form of early capitalism in the United States. And many scholars argue that it was actually crucial to the success of capitalism. And the North, the physical locus of capitalism, with the banks and economic markets, got really rich off of slavery. Money and goods from the South propped up New York’s banks and Boston’s merchants and made economic development possible.
I would say that it was really around the mid-1800s, say 1860s, 1870s, kind of the Civil War period and after, whereby more and more capitalism itself basically came to dominate the whole process of American expansion and American power.
And eventually, as that shift happened, it became harder and harder for those farmers, who James mentioned earlier, who didn’t want to rely on the market or wages, to succeed.
So, say you have a patriarchal household on the Western frontier. They have four or five kids. In order for those kids to start more households, they needed a certain amount of land. And when it became harder and harder to get more land, the younger generation started going into other things. Work in a factory or move to a city and apprentice under an artisan. And at the same time, artisans started hiring workers more and more as artisans shifted more into a kind of capitalist mode of operation, too.
And I wanted to know from James, like, did his work examining this slow transition in the US, does that teach us anything about our future economic transitions?
So, I think it’s about a slow process of, on one hand, thinking of immediate ways to change the ways that we interact with each other on very basic levels. But on the other hand, thinking about things in terms of centuries, and specifically when we think about the challenges that climate change will bring and the fact that that may end up leading to some kind of apocalypse in 100 or 200 years where we have to change everything because of famines and world hunger and stuff.
Of course, there is plenty of historical precedent for economic shifts that are much swifter and more chaotic. Revolutions, wars, uprisings, these things too lead to big changes. And I will admit that when I heard James say it might take 100 or 200 years to shift what we’re doing, my first thought was, “I don’t know if we have time for that!”
I know some people who would say, “You can’t build any kind of alternative to capitalism within a capitalist world. You need to start by smashing the state.” There’s other people that say, “There’s no way you can say smash the state. You need to start on a smaller scale, creating some kind of gift economy,” or something like that. My own attitude is that, when looking at alternatives to capitalism, you have to think on pretty much every single scale.
But before we get to those alternatives, it might be worth talking a little bit about why so many people are looking for an exit strategy from our current situation. What is wrong with the way things are today?
DR. ANNA GREAR:
So, capitalism has, at its heart, a commitment to more or less endless growth.
This is Dr. Anna Grear, a professor of law at Cardiff University.
Why do we need alternatives to capitalism? Because the logic of neoliberal capitalism is the logic of the cancer cell. It’s an addiction to endless growth and it’s utterly unsustainable.
There’s so many things to point to, it’s like… I mean, right now the first thing that came to mind was all the fires that are happening on the West Coast and internationally right now. Just the climate catastrophes that are impacting our communities.
This is Ricardo Nuñez, the Director of Economic Democracy at the Sustainable Economies Law Center.
We provide legal education, research, advice, and advocacy for just and resilient economies. And really, for me, what that looks like is envisioning a post-capitalist future that actually acknowledges where we’ve come from; that isn’t afraid of the mistakes that we’ve made to each other and the planet; and build institutions, organizations, and relationships that hopefully will start to build towards a future that is reparative, just, and whole.
We’re going to come back to what that means and looks like in a little bit, but the work both Anna and Ricardo do is grounded in this idea that today’s systems are not working for people.
One example that comes to mind is this recent media coverage of this… It’s a particularly stark example, I think, of this basic chasm between the existing system and the future of planetary life actually. This particularly stark example of while the Earth system staggers under the weight of industrial and financial capitalism’s fallouts in the form of the climate crisis, biodiversity collapse, ocean acidification, and so on (that’s just mentioning three of the crises), we have three self-indulgent billionaires competing to get into almost space.
The way that we require people to fit into a particular relationship with work that doesn’t allow for them to support their families, to raise children, to support themselves. And yet at the same time, we try to diminish the social safety net that is provided to supplement those things that we are requiring people to work and to forget when they work to be able to live.
We’ve talked on this show before about how hard it is for millions of people to simply survive in the current conditions. In the United States, there is not a single state in which someone working full time on minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment.
Since the 1980s, incomes for the top 10% have doubled and those of the top 1% have tripled, but for most people? They haven’t changed at all. The wealth gap in the US is higher than it has been since 1929. A federal reserve study found that 40% of all Americans would struggle to raise $400 in an emergency. You have probably seen hundreds of GoFundMes in the last couple of years asking for help paying for medical bills, rent, food, and other basic living expenses.
And it might be tempting to see all of this and be like, “Okay, yes. There are problems that we should fix and we should fix these individual problems as they present themselves,” with new laws like higher minimum wage, or building more housing. But that doesn’t really address the root of the problem.
Unless we actually go to the root, we’re just going to continue to perpetuate the same cycles of inequality and exploitation that we have experienced up until this point. We’ve already tried that. We’ve already tried putting Band-aids on things and it’s not working. So, why don’t we try something else?
One of the many problems inherent in this particular economic system that we live under is that there are a lot of forms of work and value that the market doesn’t include. Parenting, having children, housework, the environmental impact of creating goods. There’s a ton of stuff that isn’t reflected in the cost of things right now. And people will often say, like, “Okay, well that’s just an accounting problem.”
DR. SARA NELSON:
So a lot of times it’s connected to this idea of a market externality. “It’s something that has escaped the market that we’re not accounting for. And if we only had more information,” because that’s what markets do, they allow people to exchange information and act on information in efficient ways, “then we could simply be acting on the right information and we would act correctly and rationally.”
This is Dr. Sara Nelson, an Economic Policy Fellow at the University of British Columbia. But Sara points out that if you actually did try and make this accounting perfect by really, truly capturing all of the inputs, the whole system would completely fall apart. Take housework for example. In the 1970s, a movement started demanding wages for housework.
They were serious claims and they also were understood to be impossible in the sense of, had they been satisfied, they would shake the capitalist system to its core because it is, among other things, founded on the free labor of gendered people, you know, predominantly, historically, of course, women’s reproductive labor, but of course going beyond that as well.
In 2019, one study found that if American women made just the minimum wage for the work they did around the house and caring for relatives, they would have earned $1.5 trillion in 2019.
Sara’s work mostly looks at an idea called natural capital, which has a lot of definitions but it basically tries to think about the actual value, monetarily, of nature.
There’s a similar power to natural capital claims to say, “If we really did take on the project of valuing all of these things that we don’t value, it would actually destroy capitalism as we know it.” And so that’s never actually the project of natural capital or it is an unachievable project.
For example, one study found that the financial costs of pollution are $4.6 trillion per year. But those costs largely are not reflected in the cost of the stuff that you buy every day. A 2010 UN report found that if corporations paid the real price of the environmental damage they caused, it would cost about $2.2 trillion.
And one report found that the real cost of food in the UK, when you account for pollution and healthcare costs, is twice as much as customers actually pay for it. Depending on where you live, you might already be paying some of these costs. Some people in the US spend up to 10% of their income buying bottled water, for example, because of pesticides and other pollutants in their tap water.
And I wanted to talk about natural capital here. I know it’s a little bit of a diversion and an aside, but I think that it’s useful because I think that its history is kind of actually instructive for this moment we’re in and this question of how we move forward and how we change economic systems. Right now, I think we’re in this really interesting moment where a lot of activists are looking at huge environmental issues, like global climate change, and pointing fingers, rightfully, at capitalism as the root of the problem. Today, according to polling, 54% of Gen Z has a negative opinion of capitalism. And it can kind of feel like maybe the writing is on the wall for this particular system that is failing us. But we’ve been in a similar place before. In the 1970s, there was a big environmental movement that included a lot of criticism of extractive capitalism as the root of the problem. But instead of changing that system, we instead got, among other things, this idea of natural capital, this “solution” to simply put a monetary value on nature.
So we have to see this as a kind of evolution that is not simply a single actor proposing natural capital as some kind of conspiracy solution, but something that comes out of that moment and is a really handy device for saying, “Hey, capitalism can actually solve this problem. We don’t need to transform our economic systems. We simply need better accounting. We need better ways of understanding these values.”
And so, it provides a kind of fix for this much bigger and deeper problem and a way of, kind of, channeling and redirecting some of that energy of resistance that is behind those movements as well.
And so what this means is that if we do want to fundamentally change the system, we can’t simply change our math. We have to change the way we think. Which is hard, but possible!
All economic and social systems can also be undone. So, I think that it’s always really crucial to maintain that perspective.
I believe this. I believe that things can change. That’s kind of the whole premise of this podcast. And yet, even I am sometimes like “But like how do we do that?! How do you change this huge, dominant thing??”
I think the key goes back to what James Parisot said about scale. Instead of trying to figure out everything at once and how to globally change everything, let’s talk about some specific, local ideas.
And it’s really interesting right now because there are so many more people who are open to alternative models. We’ve seen it even in the run-up to the pandemic. There was already an opening and it just blew the doors wide open when covid struck.
And we’re going to talk about those when we come back.
Today’s episode is supported in part by BirdNote and the Threatened podcast.
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Okay, so one thing I often hear people say in my inbox or on social media is something along the lines of, like, “Yes, we get it. You hate capitalism, but can you really point me to a nation that has another system that works?” And I think that this question is kind of a red herring for two reasons. One is, the answer is yes, but I actually don’t want to spend this episode talking about national politics. What I want to talk about is both smaller and bigger than that. And that is your local community.
And I want to talk about a couple of different terms and frameworks that people use on a much smaller scale than, say, trying to topple the global order. One of them is this idea of the commons.
The commons is really just another way of organizing social life, but instead of being about exclusion, control, and greed, commoning is about collective governance. It’s about use value over exchange value. The commons are an alternative system for meeting needs.
That’s Dr. Anna Grear again.
In a way, at the bottom, commons are just about human beings sharing, taking joint action, cooperating together, creating things together, and they’re everywhere.
There are lots of examples of these kinds of projects all over the world.
There’s women protecting forest rights in Rajasthan, for example. Various experiments in managing farmland is commons. Various urban commons experiments; theaters as commons is a very particular example in Rome. Digital arts as commons, open-source seed commons that fight back against monopoly practices of corporations like Monsanto. There’s commons-based publishing, there are learning commons, and so on and so forth. Absolutely varied, pretty much endless in the creativity and possibilities, commoning.
Another term that you might have heard, particularly over the past couple of years, to describe projects that help people out is ‘mutual aid’.
Mutual aid is the part of social movement work where we meet each other’s direct survival needs with an invitation to collective action and with a shared understanding of what the causes of these survival crises are.
This is Dean Spade, an activist and professor at Seattle University’s School of Law. Dean is also the author of a book called Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next).
So it’s like, you’re facing eviction. We are resisting eviction with a shared understanding that there’s something wrong with the capitalist housing market, that it’s something wrong with our housing court in our town, something wrong with a real estate development in our town, something wrong with rent. We have this analysis together and we’re going to immediately help people like you facing eviction by… maybe we’re going along with you to housing court and fighting. Maybe we’re all picketing at the landlord’s place. Maybe we’re helping people squat; whatever different tactics we’re using.
And you can come get our support from this project and you can get it whether or not you decide to participate. But we’re also inviting you to join the movement to fight for housing justice in our town and more broadly.
And I think this is the big, key thing to understand about mutual aid. It’s not just giving money. It’s also about naming the reason people need support on a structural level and then working to change those structures.
It’s wonderful when people donate and it’s… The problem, I think, there’s the emotional level of donating where people are like, “I’m done. I’ve done my thing.” And that’s also what corporations are always doing. They’re like, “Oh, we now look progressive because we gave money to some gay thing.” We really want to avoid an idea that you buy your way out of the current crises because it’s just a lot. Like, we just actually can’t.
Now, I want to take a really quick detour here to talk about money because it’s important to say that mutual aid is not philanthropy. In fact, it’s specifically working against the way that a lot of top-down philanthropy operates.
Maybe you’ve seen all the statistics about how Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk could end hunger or homelessness and still have several billion left to spare. That’s true, but we can all be honest here. They’re not going to do that. And in fact, research shows that even when these elite philanthropists do donate money, it often winds up actually increasing inequality.
DR. HYUNSEOK HWANG: Elite philanthropists tend to maintain their values instead of contributing some types of the society by reserving the social problems.
This is Dr. Hyunseok Hwang, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Houston. He looks at the ways in which philanthropy on all kinds of scales actually impacts communities. And he’s found that, often, it’s not good.
Elite philanthropy widens the gap of the economic inequality rather than reducing it. Giving in to the elitist forms of the philanthropy, creating the vicious cycles of economic inequality because the elite branch often recycle their wealthiness or succeed their wealthiness to the family through their foundations rather than resolving the real social problems.
Basically, what his work has found is that even in cases where elite philanthropy has positive impacts, it’s not a cost-effective way of doing things. What’s far more effective is local organizations, much smaller community-based organizations.
I want your listeners to focus on what’s going on in the local, because a lot of people just focus on the national politics and the national issues rather than local issues. But looking at the local issues is very important.
So if you are going to give money, if you’re going to donate, please do seek out local organizations to give to, rather than huge, international ones. But again, simply donating money, which is good, is not necessarily going to solve our problems. Which brings us back to mutual aid.
And another key piece of mutual aid is that it works for anybody and everybody who needs it. You don’t have to qualify or be part of some specific targeted group. You don’t have to join the political movement or, honestly, even agree with it.
Mutual aid is like, “It’s not your fault you’re in this crisis. It’s the system’s fault.” We want to all work together to fight the system and also to make sure everyone survives right now.
And to Dean, mutual aid is not simply a stopgap measure while we are all waiting around for big government programs to catch up, or even for regional safety nets to be born. It’s actually its own system and philosophy that can work in the long term as a replacement for what we have today.
Ricardo’s work with the Sustainable Economies Law Center focuses on supporting people who are doing local projects that imagine alternative economies so that they don’t get sued, among other things. One project they’re working on, for example, is trying to build a place where housing isn’t bought and sold on the market as a commodity.
And so, what East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, or EB PREC, is doing is it’s creating an umbrella organization that provides backbone support, organizing, finding resources to purchase property, and either convert it to a housing cooperative and/or a land trust, and then take that property off the speculative market in the East Bay of San Francisco – Oakland primarily, and Berkeley – and to put that property into the hands of community control.
Another project they work on focuses on changing the relationship between workers and bosses, or owners of a business.
We’ve done things from creating specific legal entities that embed cooperative principles, democratic principles of ‘one member, one vote’ in the workplace, but also that profits are distributed based not on your capital investment but on the value that you’ve contributed to that workplace over a year, for example.
What that means is that the owner of a business could sell it to the workers for them to own, collectively. And the SELC has helped develop loan programs to help give the workers the money they might need to do that.
I think one of the things that I get really excited about is there is all this transformational vision and things that really bind us. But when you’re working with clients who are, like, doing the day-to-day nitty-gritty, trying to build these institutions to sell, those things are really exciting because it’s like, “How are we actually going to take the steps that we need to get from where we are to where we want to be?”
And to be part of that process is like… It’s draining, very emotionally draining sometimes. And it’s really exciting because I get to be a part of that process in history and moving towards a future that I can actually not be ashamed of.
Now, one of the big criticisms of some of these community-driven ideas and the concept of things like mutual aid or the commons is that they don’t scale, that you can’t take mutual aid models that work in one community and make them national. And Dean and Ricardo have two answers to that. First, some mutual aid projects are national.
The group Survived & Punished, which has chapters in many parts of the US and also a national organization, they run campaigns for people who’ve been criminalized for resisting, like, often domestic violence, or sexual assault, or like transphobic or racist attacks. And so those people are being criminalized, and they’re drawing attention to their case, and trying to get them out, and doing direct support to them while they’re in prison.
But the other is to answer this question of how to scale with another question, which is to ask, “Why do we need to scale?”
It’s imagined that that’s more effective than a million tiny projects that are learning from each other, but doing resistance and support based on local knowledges. And I actually think that it is much more effective to do work that is based on local knowledges, and that is adaptable, and that’s networked to other similar work, and learning from it, and sharing technology, and sharing awareness and lessons learned. But that is not centralized.
And I ultimately think that whenever you centralized power and decision making, you erase local knowledges, and then you have somebody in New York or DC deciding what things should be like in rural Wyoming or what things should be like in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Los Angeles. And that is not actually the best way to do it there.
If you’ve ever done local disaster relief work, you might have noticed that the local groups on the ground tend to be far more effective than the huge national or international organizations with giant budgets. The idea of efficiency and scale assumes that you can, and should, use the same model and plan everywhere. But that might not be true.
The idea of having a single blueprint that we will roll out across all the lands is really problematic and colonial framework. But people in their communities are solving all these problems in all these other ways. Like, anything we could pick, like what’s an alternative to the energy system, what’s an alternative to this food system, what’s alternative to this schooling system, what’s an alternative to this way of doing wages? Like, yes, there are people that like, “Oh, there are cooperatives,” there’s squatting, there’s people taking the land back. There’s factory takeovers. There’s community gardening. There just are.
There’s so many solutions. There’s so many things that people can do. And we don’t need to respond… We don’t need to respond to the system, like, in a global way. We can do it locally, and that’s the way… It’s going to act like the environment acts. It’s going to be like a fractal. And folks like Adrienne Maree Brown and others have talked about how they’ve seen things scale based on small movements, small changes.
Small projects are now part of something much larger. And so, if where we are we practice commoning-type experiments, we join with others in our locality, we join in projects, we join in initiatives… and we can do that in a digital locality or a physical locality. But where in a physical locality, in a local space, for example, we have a commoning-type experiment, we literally change the plausibility structures of daily life for everyone who comes into contact with it. These commoning initiatives demonstrate another way of living and being realistically.
Doing this kind of reframing is not easy. Dean is the first to admit that. It can be hard and scary to imagine a totally different world. We talked earlier about how the status quo can feel natural and unchangeable. And we’re often told that this is the only way. But of course, that’s not true.
First, I think it’s really important just to say, we live in a system that tells us that any alternative to it is impossible, but we live in the most imprisoning country that’s ever existed in the world. We live at a time with the greatest extraction and the greatest global inequality possible. Everything is an alternative to this. So, just freeing people’s imagination, like, literally anywhere, anytime, anything as an alternative to this, it’s pretty much better.
And the coolest thing about this is that you, right now, can be a part of this future. You can find your local groups and actually be a part of this kind of change.
We can start to build toward that future now. We can start to be building those sort of prefigurative politics. Like, we don’t have to wait to get to this utopian future that actually will never come. We can start being in right relationship with each other right now. And so really, like, we are living the future.
So what might that look like further out? If you can live this future today by connecting with these groups – and by the way, I will put some links to how to find mutual aid groups and communities working on these alternatives in the show notes. But if you can live this future today, what would it be like if it really took off? To find out the answer to that, we have to turn to someone who thinks really far out. Like, a thousand years far out.
I can’t imagine a world that is good that involves money.
And we will do that when we come back.
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Okay, so the inspiration for this episode was a question about gift economies. So let’s talk about those in more detail. Let’s talk about some modern gift economies and then some very futuristic ones. Lots of communities around the world today already have gift economies. And these often operate next to and on top of money economies.
We are very much used to only thinking in terms of money and as if there’s only one economy. It’s not true.
That’s Dr. Niels Thygesen again. And one example that he’s written about is the Danish island of Samsø.
… who has converted into a sustainable economy, and within ten years, by means of gift economic ways of organizing, they have achieved what no other island in the world has ever achieved, and that is they have become 100% sustainable in green energy.
So, the story of what happened goes basically like this: In 1997 Samsø decided that they wanted to become a sustainable energy island. So the officials drafted a big fancy plan with a budget and a timeline. And they went to the folks on the island with this whole, elaborate plan.
And it failed terribly.
Lots of people and small businesses on Samsø relied on the old oil-burning stoves for warmth and for their livelihoods.
So, of course, you will see nobody supporting this idea.
But instead of just giving up on this whole plan, the island decided to go out to the community and develop a system by which the people who wanted to design the new energy system and the island’s experts, these people who wanted to keep their jobs, could come together and trade information and ideas. And Niels argues that this is an example of a gift economy.
They would give a lot of energy, give a lot of hours, upgrade their expertise. And that was their gift, so to speak.
In return for their time, these entrepreneurs became experts in the new energy system, so when it was launched, they were the ones who were called to install and fix things.
So now, you have a relational economy based on gift giving because there was no money, so to speak, in between. But there was mutual support that meant that the district heating plan was being developed extremely rapidly.
Samsø also developed a new biogas plant that wound up creating fertilizer for farmers and energy for the local ferry. Again, these materials are exchanged on the island without money changing hands.
And using this way of thinking, the island became totally sustainable in just ten years. Now, experts, and engineers, and scientists all come from all over the world to the island to learn how they did it and to exchange their ideas and knowledge in return.
The gift economy turned into a knowledge economy, a waste economy, a work economy. So it kind of exploded into all these circles on that island.
Now, it’s important to say that with all of these solutions, the actual system itself isn’t magic. With a gift economy, for example, bad things can still happen. There’s a whole body of research about the ways in which gift economies can create social pressures that are actually oppressive and exploitative.
These value-creating communities can be fantastic to be a part of, but it can also be very difficult to leave them. So, when you have different religious movements, which are also to a large extent based on a gift economy, you will see people being hunted down because they try to leave their obligations within which this gift actually works.
These alternatives offer new ways of thinking and new opportunities to change our relationships with each other and the planet. But they still require work to get right.
I mean, the religious aspect of the book is just, like, “No matter how hard we will try to build Utopia on this side of reality, we won’t succeed.” And things will keep changing because humans are human, and humans will always be human, and entropy will always enter a system and break it up. And the point is to control the breaking up to ensure the well-being of the most amount of people.
This is Monica Byrne, an author and past guest on Flash Forward. She has a new book coming out in September called The Actual Star.
For everybody listening, there are three portions. It goes back and forth from the years 1012, 2012, and 3012. And 3012 is my genuine, merest attempt at a utopia that I possibly could imagine.
And listener, here is where I will give you a little bit of a peek behind the curtain and confess to you that I thought we were totally done doing interviews for this episode, and then on Thursday of last week I started reading The Actual Star and I was like, “Oh… we have to talk to Monica!” Because in this far future of her novel, everything operates on the basis of a gift economy. So I caught her while she was in the middle of a road trip and she was kind enough to talk to us from her stop in Des Moines, Iowa.
What if you could look out at a landscape and immediately, AI in your head, could pinpoint everything you needed to eat, and you could just go pick it, and prepare it, and like… it’s basically AI-assisted foraging. Or in the case of gift economies, what if just all your needs were met, if not immediately, then, you know, a day later?
In the book, characters in the year 3012 can use their augmented reality devices to ask for things that they need and respond to people’s requests. People live with this collective understanding that, to survive, as humans, we have to help one another.
If we had a system where… It’s called the paragua. The paragua is, like, the immediate algorithm governing your area. And it fluctuates based on how many people are in a given area. How people would get food to people who need it, medicine to people who need it. Obviously, gathering places are places where needs are met more immediately. People who go way, way out into wastelands knowingly take a risk that they could die out there because they’re too far away from aid.
In the book, things are not perfect. Characters have to work to come together, to understand each other. They fight, they disagree, they sometimes don’t want to give someone something. This, again, isn’t magic. It’s an organizing system and philosophy that you have to commit to, actively.
Basically, the sort of, like, “Okay, how do we start over?” We already live in a dystopia, and a… not a responsibility, but a vocation of science fiction that has been neglected of late is imagining better futures instead of constantly, utterly bleak futures, which we’re now living in for the majority of humanity. And so, that’s a vocation I feel very called to.
Yes, this does require us not only to believe that there are other possibilities for the future, but also to believe in humans. It requires that we don’t just throw up our hands and assume that humanity is purely selfish or evil. Like I said earlier, research shows us that in times of crisis, people do help one another. But right now, looking out at what’s happening with COVID for example, it can sometimes be hard to believe that.
But I want to get on my soapbox here for just a second at the end of this episode. I mean, I guess this whole episode has kind of been me on my soapbox, but bear with me; we’re almost at the end. What we’re seeing in the United States right now in regard to COVID, I think, is not a natural condition. There’s this story that gets told about how there are currently so many sources of information that it’s impossible for the average person to figure out who to trust and what to read, which is what leads to this rise in the kinds of conspiracy theories and science denialism that we see in the US right now. This is often called an “infodemic” to go along with the “pandemic.” Maybe you’ve heard that term before.
But I read a really interesting post recently by a researcher arguing that we should stop using the term “infodemic” to describe this thing because it makes it sound like some kind of natural condition. It’s not. When you look at something like trust in medical experts on the national level, there is a huge divide between the US and, for example, Australia or Malaysia. And it’s not because the people in Australia or Malaysia have less access to information, right? It’s because there are specific actors in positions of power who created the conditions that lead to more or less trust in science. It’s not natural to turn on our neighbors during a pandemic. It’s the product of politics and economics.
And that’s, actually, a good thing because politics and economics can change. We can change the conditions that led to this.
There is no other option but to believe in humanity, otherwise, everything is just a quick slide into despair. Even on days when I really don’t, I choose to believe.
As Mariame Kaba says, hope is a discipline — not an emotion or a sense of optimism. And that’s true even when it comes to economics.
And I want to end with a quote from Ursula K. LeGuin that I think about all the time. She said, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
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Flash Forward is hosted by me, Rose Eveleth, and produced by Julia Llinas Goodman. The intro music is by Asura and the outro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Mattie Lubchansky. The docent from the future this episode was played by Julia Llinas Goodman!
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook, or by email at Info@FlashForwardPod.com. We love hearing your ideas! As you heard, this episode was inspired by a listener, so keep sending your ideas.
And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references that I’ve hidden in the episode, you can email us there too, Info@FlashForwardPod.com. If you are right, I will send you something cool. If you want to discuss this episode, some other episode, or just the future in general, you can join the Flash Forward Facebook group! Just search ‘Flash Forward Podcast’ and ask to join. There is one question; it’s very easy. You can say pretty much anything. I just want to make sure that you’re in the right place and that you’re not some sort of, like, weird, evil robot overlord.
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That is all for this future. Come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
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