1.0 Social Futurist Revolution
We have recently seen increased interest in the issues of workplace automation, technological unemployment, and Basic Income Guarantee (AKA Universal Basic Income). Some observers have been perplexed by visceral and sharply divided public opinion, with people viewing these phenomena as inherently positive or negative.
We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.
– R. Buckminster Fuller
My own view is that when people see technological unemployment as intrinsically good or bad, the side they fall on probably depends on whether they’re focused on the possible future, or the problematic present. Most jobs are only valuable insofar as they earn money to live, but if our needs could be provided without the jobs then it would be a good thing to have the option of not working for money. Thus, in an ideal world technological unemployment would be a good thing. The problem arises when such unemployment takes place in a Capitalist context; i.e. in a world like ours, where if you don’t have a job you may well be unable to afford healthcare, you might lose your home, even starve.
We live in an interesting time, in which our society has not yet finished exploring the consequences of Capitalism on a trajectory spanning hundreds of years, but at the same time is heavily pregnant with a new civilizational paradigm. We don’t know exactly what the new paradigm will be, but we can be fairly sure that its dawn will be heralded by a cascade of disruptive technologies rendering 19th Century ideas about trade and governance entirely obsolete. That has the potential to be a very good or bad thing, but in the meantime there is a pressing issue we must contend with.
1.1 Capitalism is a machine with no off-switch
Well, capitalism is a big problem, because with capitalism you’re just going to keep buying and selling things until there’s nothing else to buy and sell, which means gobbling up the planet.
– Alice Walker
Capitalism might be thought of as a machine, or a process. In my opinion it is a machine – an engine of sorts – which has yielded great value for society. It has made a high-technology future possible. Unfortunately, the engine’s operations have also yielded some unfortunate side-effects. The sensible move at this point would be to optimise the process; to maximise the engine’s efficiency, and minimise its negative societal effects (not to mention ensuring that the role of the engine is not confused with that of the flight crew). Unfortunately, however, it would appear that if Capitalism is a machine, it is a machine with no off-switch or pause button. It is a runaway process.
In other words, Capitalism has no mechanism for reversing itself when its effects become a problem. For example, now that automation is making it possible for people to use their time and energy for something other than meaningless labour – indeed it is taking away jobs whether people want them or not – Capitalism cannot suddenly make ‘opting out’ a viable course of action. People who opt out of Capitalism cease to be able to support themselves within modern society.
In this way, it would appear that the old system has no capacity for gracefully giving way to a new way of doing things where people want that. The old system would strangle the new in its cradle, given the chance. Consequently, anyone who wishes to employ new technologies in the creation of a progressive society must be ready to force the old system to relinquish its grip on their lives.
1.2 The Social Futurist alternative
Usually the first problems you solve with the new paradigm are the ones that were unsolvable with the old paradigm.
– Joel A. Barker
As I’ve mentioned above, there is a broad space of post-Capitalist alternatives potentially enabled by new technologies. I am an advocate for a single category within that broad space, which I call Social Futurism. Right now, Social Futurism simply refers to the intelligent and compassionate application of new technologies to individual and societal improvement, with an emphasis upon voluntarism and personal freedom. At this stage, therefore, Social Futurism could be considered a synonym for Techno-Progressivism, although no-one knows if that will continue to be true as these schools of thought evolve.
We believe in positive social change through technology, and so are firmly on the side of the emerging new paradigm. My own view is that there will always be a place for responsible trade in emergent commodities, and that healthy private competition drives innovation, but so far Social Futurism leaves such questions open. Capitalism as it currently exists, however, will soon be faced with challenges unprecedented in its history. If Capitalism is incapable of graceful reform to adopt a place within the new paradigm, as I strongly suspect, then Social Futurists and other post-Capitalists will be forced to take a revolutionary stand. To forcibly unplug a machine loose in our lives, which never had an off-switch.
1.3 Revolution means never being alone
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
– R. Buckminster Fuller
But what does it mean to speak of “revolution” and “force”? Of course we can easily conjure images of violent political revolutions, and there is no denying that public rebellion is back in vogue. I personally believe that violent revolution is not something to be desired or fetishised, both because it seldom ends well or as predicted, and also because the deepest revolutions are inclusive and take time to play out. Here I am referring not to minor political revolutions so much as major paradigm shifts like the Industrial Revolution. Now, we are facing a techno-cultural shift on that scale (if not much larger), but at the same time it is likely to spark various social, economic, and political conflicts of the sort associated with violent revolution. We must ask ourselves how best to proceed, with the probability of such events looming large on the horizon.
At least two answers to that question might be suggested by the Zero State (ZS) community. The ZS idea is to create a virtual, distributed State which adheres to a set of ethical principles including limits of governmental jurisdiction. The first answer is that Social Futurists’ engagement in violent situations should be governed by principles, such as an imperative to do so only in self-defence. The second answer is to focus on building new communities, new infrastructure, and new paradigms rather than attempting to fix broken systems. In short, we need to build principled networks and use them to apply the latest innovations to our highest ideals, to the benefit of as many people as possible.
If we can do that, then I believe we will indeed be seeing a revolution unfold. New social and economic models will evolve and emerge from within the old, which will compete with older systems to provide high quality of life. Where people are not offered freedom of choice between these alternatives, and where the remnants of the older society seek to destroy its offspring, we must stand ready to fight for our freedoms. If we are hardworking and organised, then we will have the chance to contribute to the shape of the future. If we are lucky, then that future will unfold peacefully for all.
2.0 Social Futurist Toolkit
I have laid out an extremely general critique of Capitalism’s place within our society, and the barest outline of the alternative known as Social Futurism. Section 1’s point is that Capitalism does certain things very well but it cannot be paused or adjusted when its effects become problematic, that rapid technological change appears to be on the verge of making certain alternatives viable, and that unfortunately we may be forced to fight for our right to personally choose those alternatives.
Section 1 did not address policy details of any sort. It would be unfortunate if people thought that meant Social Futurism has no specific ideas at its disposal, so section 2 outlines a kind of “policy toolkit”. The following policy categories are not compulsory features of any Social Futurist movement or group, but are more like basic building blocks from which specific policy configurations could be adapted to local conditions. Similarly, the toolkit as it currently stands is in no way exhaustive.
It is my intent that this toolkit should form a kind of bridge between the broadest, most general level of political discussion on the one hand, and the development of specific policies for local groups on the other. The six basic policy categories are only very briefly discussed below, but will each soon be analysed fully by the Social Future Institute.
Finally, none of the ideas presented in this article are new (section 2.6 being my only novel contribution), but this mix is seldom presented in a single ‘chunk‘ that can be easily memorised and communicated. It is my hope that in time the label “Social Futurism” may act as the natural intersection of these disparate-but-compatible ideas, enabling people to refer to an array of possible solutions to major problems in two words rather than two thousand.
2.1 Evidence, Balance, & Transition
All of the policies in this toolkit should be approached from a pragmatic and flexible (rather than ideologically constrained) point of view. When trying to be pragmatic and flexible, our main concern is with policies that actually solve problems, so the use of empirical evidence is central to Social Futurism. Policy development and review should emphasise the setting of quantifiable goals and application of empirical evidence wherever that is an option, to encourage policy that evolves to better meet our goals over time.
In this vein, we should seek to find optimal balances between extreme ideological positions, to the extent that any given choice may be viewed as a continuum rather than a binary choice. An extremely important example is the question of transition, which is to say the process of development from our current PEST (political, economic, social, technological) situation to a more efficient and just society. Often political questions are depicted as a false dichotomy, or choice between things as they are and radical utopias entirely disconnected from current reality. What is both preferable and more tractable is an intelligent balance of the past and future, in the form of a pragmatic transition phase.
For example, sections 2.2-2.4 below propose a series of economic adjustments to society. From the perspective of someone invested in the status quo, they are extremely radical suggestions. From the perspective of a radical utopian, they are half-measures at best. From a Social Futurist perspective, they are required to maximise the likelihood of a better society actually coming into existence, while attempting to minimise the risk of severe societal destabilisation caused by rapid and untested change. My own vision of a societal transition phase follows an observation from Ray Kurzweil, in which change often takes longer than anticipated, but also ends up being much deeper than anticipated, meaning that focus on a transition phase may allow us to work toward truly radical transformative change in the longer term.
In short, the effectiveness of our methods should be tested by looking at evidence, we should balance our policies in a flexible and pragmatic manner, and we should seek a staged transition toward a better future rather than risk critically destabilizing society.
2.2 Universal Basic Income & LVAT
A minimal, “safety net” style Universal Basic Income should be established. This is as opposed to putting undue strain on the economy by introducing a basic income larger than is required to satisfy essential living requirements. Where possible, the UBI should be paid for by a combination of dismantling welfare bureaucracies, and Land Value & Automation Taxes (LVAT).
LVAT is the extension of traditional Land Value Tax to include a small tax on every unit of workplace automation equivalent to a single human being replaced. This extension of LVT is intended to harness the economic momentum of workplace automation, which is expected to be the principal cause of technological unemployment in coming decades. The tax should be considerably less than the cost of hiring a human, thus causing no disincentive to automation (some would argue that any tax would disincentivize automation, but our goal is not to encourage automation, and as long as automation is cheaper than human labour it will win out). The LVAT would take the place of increasing numbers of arbitrary taxes on goods and services which are currently being added and increased to shore up Western economies.
Social Futurism is compatible with private property ownership and does not advocate property confiscation. Wealth redistribution is only advocated to the degree that it can be achieved through LVAT & UBI as described above. The extent to which people should be able to choose if, how, and to whom they pay tax is addressed in section 2.6. It is also worth noting here that where a functional equivalent of UBI exists (e.g. citizen shares in Distributed Autonomous Cooperatives) which is proven more effective, then Social Futurists should favour the more effective solution as per point 2.1.
2.3 Abolition of Fractional Reserve Banking
Fractional Reserve Banking is the process by which banks are required to hold only a fraction of their customers’ deposits in reserve, allowing the money supply to grow to a multiple of the base amount held in reserve. Through this practice, central banks may charge interest on the money they create (thereby creating a debt which can never be repaid, across society as a whole) and expose the entire economy to risk when they cannot meet high demand for withdrawals. Fractional Reserve Banking fosters potentially critical risk to the entirety of society for the benefit of only a tiny proportion of citizens, and therefore should be abolished. The alternative to Fractional Reserve Banking is Full Reserve or 100% Reserve Banking, in which all banks must hold the full amount of deposits in reserve at all times.
Full Reserve Banking is much more conservative than Fractional Reserve Banking, and would signal an end to “easy credit”. In turn, it would afford enough stability to see our society through a sustainable transition phase, until technological post-scarcity makes reliance on traditional banking systems and the Capitalist principle of surplus value itself unnecessary.
2.4 Responsible Capitalism, Post-Scarcity, & Emergent Commodity Markets
Social Futurist policy must favour the encouragement of responsible trade and strong regulation of reckless behaviour, with an eye to making Capitalism an engine of society rather than its blind master. To this end, it should be Social Futurist policy that all companies that wish to operate within any given community must be registered with the appropriate regulation bodies employed by that community. Non-regulation and self-regulation by industries which are not accountable to the communities they affect is unacceptable. (For the purposes of this brief statement I have conflated Capitalism and markets, despite the fact that trade existed millennia before the organization of society around profit based on Capital investment. These issues will be treated separately and extensively, later).
Where possible, Social Futurists should advocate the transition to non-monetary peer-to-peer resource management under post-scarcity conditions. In other words, we should seek to avoid the creation or maintenance of artificial scarcity in essential resources. A continuing place for trade even under post-scarcity conditions is acknowledged and encouraged where it reduces artificial scarcity, promotes technical innovation, and serves the needs and directives of the community. Emergent commodities (e.g. natural artificial scarcities such as unique artworks) will need a framework for responsible trade even under optimal post-scarcity conditions, so it behooves us to develop such frameworks now, in the context of contemporary Capitalism.
2.5 Human autonomy, privacy, & enhancement
Social Futurism incorporates the transhumanist idea that the human condition can and should be improved through the intelligent and compassionate application of technology. We also strongly emphasise voluntarism, and in combination these things necessitate the championing of people’s rights over their own bodies and information. It should be Social Futurist policy to oppose any development by which people would lose individual sovereignty or involuntarily cede ownership of their personal information. Social Futurists must also defend the individual’s right to modify themselves by technological means, provided that the individual is a mentally competent consenting adult and the modification would not pose significant risk of harm to others.
2.6 Establishment of VDP (Virtual, Distributed, Parallel) States
The principle of subsidiarity holds that organizational responsibility should be devolved to the lowest or most local level capable of dealing with the situation. In other words, power should be decentralized, insofar as that doesn’t diminish our ability to face challenges as a society.
For example, local governance issues should be handled by local rather than national-level government where possible. Social Futurism takes subsidiarity to its logical conclusion, by insisting that people should have the right to govern their own affairs as they see fit, as long as by doing so they are not harming the wider community. On the other side of the coin, broader (e.g. national and transnational) levels of governance would be responsible for issues that local organizations and individuals could not competently face alone.
Where global governance is needed, the model should be one of cooperating global agencies focused on a specific area of expertise (e.g. the World Health Organization), rather than a single government acting in a centralised manner to handle all types of issue. In this way, decentralization of power applies even when an issue cannot be resolved on the local level.
In order to encourage the development of such a system, we advocate the establishment of communities with powers of self-governance known as VDP States, where VDP stands for “Virtual, Distributed, Parallel”. ‘Virtual’ refers to online community, orthogonal to traditional geographic territories. ‘Distributed’ refers to geographic States, but ones where different parts of the community exist in different locations, as a network of enclaves. ‘Parallel’ refers to communities that exist on the established territory of a traditional State, acting as a kind of organizational counterpoint to that State’s governing bodies. Two or three of these characteristics may be found in a single VDP State, but it is expected that most such communities would emphasise one characteristic over the others. Alternatively, a VDP State may emphasise different characteristics at different stages in its development.
Given Social Futurist emphasis on voluntarism, VDP State citizenship must be entirely voluntary. Indeed, the entire point of the VDP State is to broaden the range of governance models which people may voluntarily choose to engage with, where they are currently told that they simply have to accept a single model of governance.
As this is clearly a new and experimental approach to governance, it is to be expected that many ideas associated with it are still to be properly developed and tested. Some of these ideas may not meet our own standards of empirical review. However, to briefly anticipate some common objections it is worth noting several points. Firstly, decentralization does not imply an absence of social organization. It simply means that people can exercise more choice in how they engage with society. Secondly, yes it is true that all three of the VDP characteristics have limitations as well as strengths (e.g. difficulty in defending isolated enclaves), but that is why any given VDP State would find the mix of features that suits its purpose and context best. Thirdly, as mentioned earlier in this article, different approaches may be mixed and balanced as necessary, such as a single-location VDPS being used as a template for the later creation of a distributed network of communities. Finally, the VDPS idea is not intended to stand alone but to complement any initiatives which have the potential to maximise its value (Open Source Ecology, for example).
Addendum: A note on Marxism
Below I give an example of the point made in section 1 (about balance and transition), which draws upon a Marxist viewpoint because Social Futurist concerns tend to be shared by Marxists, but the logic would equally apply to movements whose long-term ideals and methods are more like our own, such as The Zeitgeist Movement. I have put this note to one side because I do not want to give an incorrect first impression that Social Futurism is Marxist in nature. It is simply intended to address societal problems which have already been comprehensively analysed by Marxists, so it is worth noting the relevance of their point of view to our own.
Marx argued that the root problem with Capitalism is surplus value. This means that Capitalists (i.e. investors) pay workers only a proportion of the value of what is produced by their work, and the remaining (“surplus”) value is taken as profit by the Capital owning class, along with rent and interest on debts. Marxists assert that workers should collectively own the means of production (i.e. factories, machines, resources, all Capital), thereby ending surplus value and phenomena such as problematic banking practices along with it. From this perspective it might be reasonably suggested that “treating the symptoms” rather than the core disorder would be fruitless (or worse, dangerous), and that citizen benefits of any sort should be paid for by distributing all profit from collectively owned means of production equally.
Without wishing to get into a discussion of whether ideal Marxism is possible or doomed to give rise to historical Communist authoritarianism, I would say that even a benign Marxist revolution would entirely destabilize society if it occurred too quickly. Social Futurism does not deny the Marxist analysis of the problem, but seeks a staged transition to a post-Capitalist society which does not attempt to undermine the entire basis of our current society in a single move. Although an optimal, long-term Social Futurist outcome may not be desirable to some Marxists (and certainly not to historical Stalinists or Maoists), it would definitely involve the eventual transition to democratic, decentralised post-scarcity, and removal of Capitalist surplus value as the central organizational principle of our civilization.