24 January 2018 Rufus Pollock
Man does not live on bread alone. Capitalism’s material productivity has been matched by a desolation of spirit. This is not accidental: capitalism’s material success requires and rewards behaviours such as competitiveness, acquisitiveness, individualism and materialism. Capitalism is so successful because it is a self-sustaining material-spiritual system that is both aggressively expansive and able to transform its environment in order to create the conditions for its own expansion. Just as jellyfish (unintentionally) desolate and acidify their ecosystem, making it hostile to other species and hospitable to themselves, so capitalism (unintentionally) takes over socio-economic ecosystems remaking them in its own image.
The spiritual desolation of capitalism provides the opportunity for alternatives, but its material robustness make it hard to supersede. However, there is hope based on the arrival of an age of abundance and the opportunities of an information age with its costless copying. The latter is especially crucial as it offers a new alignment of material and spiritual productivity based on a culture of sharing, collaboration and community. The greatest potential obstacle is the limit of land: the ultimate rival, physical good. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to belive this limitation can be resolved either technologically or politically.
They made a desert and called it peace. Tacitus
The way we live now. Trollope
Consider the sweep of recorded history, the vast majority of it dominated by hunger, incurable disease and grinding poverty. Against this canvas, we cannot but be impressed by the incredible, transformative power of market-based, individualistic capitalism and the improvements it has brought to in our material well-being in the last two centuries.
Through dynamic competition, specialization, capital growth and innovation capitalism has wrought rapid and dramatic changes in our quality of life that now extend to almost every person on this planet.
But! All those questioners from Buddha through Marx were on to something.
At its heart, capitalism – individualistic, competitive, consumerist capitalism – is fantastically materially productive but simultaneously spiritually desolate.1
The challenge for critics has been that whilst it is easy to diagnose the ills, it has proved hard indeed to find cures that help rather than harm the patient. The experiments we have witnessed in the last two centuries have not given us great confidence. The largest and most aggressive of them, in the form of communist dictatorships, have powerfully demonstrated the appalling costs that can result from sacrificing individual freedom and liberty for an (often sham) communal solidarity and greater good.2
But this does not change the fact that something is wrong.
In this essay, I focus on the “spiritual” problem: the disjunction of capitalism with the human spirit. I therefore also locate the solution in the same place. There are many great socio-spiritual philosophies which we can look to, whether emanating from specific figures such as Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammed or from entire traditions such as the Pali Canon, the Vedas or the Judao-Christian Testaments. Of these all, the teachings of Buddhism, which themselves share much with many other traditions, offer the most powerful insights for our time.
Why? We are (gradually) reaching a point where the essential needs – food, shelter, healthcare – are being met. Yet, in the most (materially) “developed” societies, wants continue to multiply. We seem stuck on a hedonic treadmill, where each need satisfied only breeds another and where despite all our successes we must each still confront the fundamental fact of our ultimate individual death and extinction.
A good part of my contention here, is that the very process of modern capitalism results in the continuation of this spiritually unrewarding cycle. Whilst compensating us with materialities that are of ever diminshing value,3 capitalism enshrines virtues and attitudes that are, in a world of increasing abundance, ever less useful. Virtues and attitudes which are, in fact, positively harmful to our spiritual and mental well-being, whilst diminishing or discarding virtues and attitudes which would be of greatest value to us.
For example, in its promotion of competition and dimunution of community. In its protestant promotion of dutiful labour and joyless leisure, both oriented to an imaginary future whether old-age or the afterlife, over meaningful work and a joyful life in the present. In its promotion of acquisitiveness and its dimunution of satisfaction. In its preference for money and goods over people and ideas.
The problem is that capitalism is very infectious. It is so productive, at least in a material sense, that it is very difficult to (want to) resist. More significantly, it remakes what it touches in its own image and undermines the ability of alternatives to exist. It is like the situation in certain ecosystems, where a certain species, once it has a toehold, by its very existence, by the things it consumes and excretes, remakes the ecosystem to favour itself – making its inhospitable for other creatures but ever more suitable for itself.4
To pursuse the analogy. Capitalism remakes its “ecosystem” in at least three ways. First, its incredible material productivity acts as a constant incentive for defection from other ways of life. Second, the basic ethical and spiritual philosophy of capitalism undermines alternatives – especially collective ones – by detaching the least attached adherents, and undermining the productivity of those alternatives (for example, moving collective groups to marginal land, by accumulating more weaponry for capitalist-based groups etc). Third, capitalism creates an environment for its own participants that favours certain ways of being and acting, e.g. acquisitiveness, individualism, materialism reinforcing these behaviours, even, one could say, addicting individuals to those ways and makes them ever more resistant to alternatives. For example, a profit-oriented social network may engage wish users to spend as much time as possible on their platform in order to maximize the attention they can sell to advertisers.5
We must recognize and respect this if we are to grapple with it. Moreover, we must go beyond antithesis: to be against X because capitalism is for it. To do so would be to remain enmeshed in capitalism’s narrative just like a child rebelling against its parent is still trapped in their parent’s world.
The challenge traditionally of any alternatives to capitalism is that they have appeared handicapped by a hugely diminished (material) productivity.
But! This is changing for two, linked, reasons:
First, we have (growing) abundance – at least in some significant portions of the world. In it simplest form abundance is the fact that we have grown dramatically materially and technologically wealthier. As we get materially wealthier, new material wealth will do ever less for our well-being – compare a man needing the food to keep him alive and a man “needing” an extra car. In addition, our systems of production have gradually evolved so that we have ever cheaper machines to help perform production ever more cheaply – and machines that make machines.
The second point is the digital, data revolution.6 Data is different. It reproduces costlessly and is naturally shared. It is fundamentally different from the physical economy we have been in for the last ten thousand years.
In a data age, the “good” that we are producing is data7 and this good has a nature that is a natural fit for completely different forms of productions and consumption to the ones we are used to. In particular, the tension between “spiritually” attractive ways of doing things – based on sharing, mutual support, collaboration – and the productive way of doing things (exclusivity, conflict, individualistic) dissolves and we are left with a complementarity rather than a conflict.
Thus, the data revolution offers itself as a resolution to the contradictions of capitalism and a way to create a new future that is beyond any of the “isms” that we have become inured to.
We must put some flesh on the bones of this bare outline.
In addition, we must address some of the obvious objections to this roseate and optimistic vision. Most specifically: human beings do not subsist on bits – they need food and shelter. Both of these lead back to land – whether for housing or for crops. And land is most definitely physical and “rival” – in fact, it is the ultimate rival good – along with people (and their attention). This is an important point to consider.
The current individualistic, capitalistic system has been utilizing the earth’s core physical resources – agricultural land, water etc – inefficiently and destructively. This is for a simple “economic”8 reason: externalities.
Externality is a fancy sounding term for a simple idea: that I do something but there is an effect on you that I don’t account for (and account for would mean (usually) pay for or be paid for). For example, suppose I play my music very loud on Saturday night and keep you up: that would be an externality. Or suppose I run a chemical plant and produce toxic waste that I pour out into the neighbouring river without telling anyone: that would be an externality because I do not bear the cost of that pollution but others do. Or, suppose we both fish the same stream, the result may be overgrazing because each of us ignore the impact of our fishing on our neighbour’s catch (this is the famous “tragedy of the commons”).
These are examples of negative externalities – whilst producing a benefit for myself I impose a cost on you. Externalities can be positive too: suppose I plant a beautiful tree in my back garden and it brings shade and beauty not just to me but to my neighbours. Or suppose I install security cameras to prevent break-ins on my house and they deter thieves from the whole street. Or, relating back to the digital and the non-rival, suppose I come up with a new scientific advance or great new joke: this will benefit lots of other people as well as myself (and is very hard to charge for!).
These examples should make clear that externalities are frequent. But what is the problem?
Focusing first on the negative externality: by their definition they involve me doing something to you that imposes on you and which is not accounted for. This means that I will not trade-off the benefits and costs correctly. To go back to the loud music example: suppose I love playing my music loudly on a Saturday night but I also have a young daughter who usually goes to bed at 9pm. I will need to carefully weigh up the enjoyment I get playing my music louder past 9pm versus the cost of a grumpier daughter tomorrow. But suppose I do not have a daughter but you, my neighbour, do have one. Suppose I do not know you or know about your daughter. I will now be quite happy to play my music loudly until I go to bed at midnight, entirely ignoring the cost imposed on you.
And the result of failing to take account of those external costs should be very obvious: I will over produce or over use whatever is the benefit to me. I will play my music for longer, my chemical plant will (over) produce (“good”) chemicals (and hence over “produce” “bad” chemicals – aka toxic waste), I will over-fish the shared fishery and over-pump the oil well.9
Externalities are seriously problematic for modern, individualistic, market-driven systems for three reasons: first, because they are “outside” the market and hence “unpriced”, faced with externalities market-driven systems are likely to produce suboptimal outcomes – the river will get polluted, music will keep you up at night. Second, the individualism, profit-orientation and scale of capitalism combine both to incentivize ever-increasing production – which worsen the problem – and undermine alternative (“collective-based”) mechanisms one might use to address the problem.
Now, if externalities were just about your neighbour playing there music too loud, this would not be a huge problem. However, it turns out that there is one area where externalities are present everywhere most importantly in the physical environment in which we live ranging from the seas and rivers to the very atmosphere we breathe. This last is significant. Uur atmosphere is one of the most obvious “commons” of all: the smoke you emit will not stay over your factory but can travel around the whole world. And today, at the start of the twenty-first century, we have discovered that one of the subtlest externalities of all threatens our very existence on the planet: the gradual warming of the entire planet due to the increased levels of of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from human causes.
Fundamentlly this earth has a limited number of humans it can sustain at a reasonable standard of living given current and near-term technology.10 Many estimates put the earth’s carrying capacity at or below the estimates for the world’s total population either today or in the near future.
Addressing these profound challenges will undoubtedly require us to use the incredible power of prices and markets to align incentives and distribute goods. However, these market-mechanisms will only be of use at the more surface level, and that, at the core, there must be some profound alterations that are not market-based. For example, take carbon dioxide and global warming. This is perhaps the most serious risk we face today, precisely because it kills so slowly and so subtly.11
One attractive solution is to find a way to “price” carbon dioxide emissions to reflect the actual harm they do. If this was done successfully, they we could allow the market to work its magic using this price and efficiently and effectively allocate reductions in emissions.12 But how to get a “price”? To do that, we will in essence have to do two things that are “before” or “beyond” the market.
First, and by far the easiest: make CO2 emissions trackable and “right” to make them “ownable”. With current technology this is increasingly feasible, especially as emissions – or their obvious sources – are reasonably concentrated (fossil-fueled power plants, construction, airplanes and cars). Second, agree to impose this tracking and associated pricing across the entire planet: CO2 lives in the atmosphere and can travel anywhere it likes so if we leave out countries, industry and other activities that are CO2 emitters can relocate there avoiding payment for their CO2 emissions. This second change at its heart is about fundamental coordinated collective action at the global level. It must be understood as such, and whilst it may create rules that ultimately allow for a solution that utilises markets, at its core it is about coordination and collective action which are the very antithesis of the market’s distributed, individualistic nature.
Let us focus back on the “land” problem, after our detour into externalities and the problems they create for individualistic capitalism.
Put succinctly the “land” problem is that man cannot live on bits alone. At the minimum, we need physical space in which to live and shelter from the elements, and we need sustenance for our body in the form of food and water. Thus, whilst bits may gradually take over regarding what we produce, until the day comes when we upload to silicon, the future of bits does not remove these core needs that come back to land.
Now, in the first instance we could look to the abundance point (the first of the two we made about the change for capitalism). The change we are seeing is not just about bits: wealth has grown extraordinarily (at least for a sizeable minority of the planet – and many others are moving that way). Abundance certainly has relevance to the question of food: we have got vastly more efficient and effective at producing food13. The abundance here is very literal: a peasant from the middle ages transported to a modern supermarket would certainly think they had arrived in Cockaigne, the mythical land of plenty.14
In real terms, or as a proportion of average income, food costs have been constantly diminishing for the last two centuries or more – at least, in the west. The number of people who go hungry or who are malnourished has been reducing – and this in the face of an extraordinary increase in population of 10x or more. We even have – or could imagine – radically new techniques for making or growing food that reduce the dependence on prime agricultural land – for example, farming algae in the oceans.
As such, we could argue that abundance – or its underpinning in terms of greater efficiency and new means or production from new technologies and techniques – means that this is an area where non-rival land plays a lesser role. (This is debatable – for example, good arable land has held steady or even increased in real terms. If demand outstrips supply on food then prices may rocket, as will the price of land).
So let us focus on land for shelter. Here we are in much trickier territory. There is clearly a very fixed amount of land available on earth, and a much smaller proportion of it that is suitable for building on, and an even smaller portion with really attractive climate, and an even smaller part that can both be built on and have reasonable communications (road, electricity, internet etc) with other parts of the world. In addition, whether through desire for company or agglomoreation externalities humans seem to want to cluster into densely populated cities making land in such areas extremely scarce.
With land being fixed, and increasing demand both from population growth and the desire for more space per person, land prices will be rising rapidly.
Of course, there are some supply factors: humans can create new space, whether through reclaiming land or moving vertically by creating multi-storey buildings etc. We may also, at some point, be able to create space on other planets or worlds – though this still seems a very distant prospect and one with phenomenal costs.
Overall, these supply factors would likely be less powerful than demand, especially when we see that generating new space tends to be itself resource intensive (skyscrapers need a lot of concrete!). We can check this intuition against the data which bears this out. Knoll, Schularik and Steger (2017) present a long-term time series of housing prices for fourteen countries, showing that house prices have risen rapidly above inflation in the last fifty years:15
This is a very real constraint. We could imagine a future where bits, and even many physical objects that can be made by machines, are increasingly costless. But land prices are astronomical and swallow up practically the entire portion of your income (with the remainder going on food).
Is this a problem? Are there changes that could ameliorate or avoid this future? Finally, if it is a problem: what can we do about it?
This may not be a problem. After all, if everything else is free or nearly free, spending all the “income” we have on land may not be an issue (it could be an issue for power and inequality however – but we will return to that). This is somewhat conjectural situation: there are lot of unknowns about a future in which everything else is so “cheap”16 relative to land that land accounts for almost all spending.
However, at least, at first glance, this would be an issue, if only because of issues of inequality and power. In this world ownership or control of land would be immensely lucrative, giving rise potentially to immense concentrations of economic and social power.
So let’s assume, for the present, that it would be a problem.
Here are some changes we could imagine:
Overall, it seems possible – even likely – that some combination of advancing technology and changing needs (arising from culture or changing population size) will make a real difference here to the potential “land shortage”18. However, it is not certain – and it definitely remains possible that these changes are either not sufficient or will not occur on a suitable timescale (and we’re interested in our lifetime!).
Finally, what happens if the “land issue” is a problem and no technological or other resolutions have been found. What could we do about it?
There are several obvious potential answers. The most obvious is that States acting on behalf of the great bulk of their populace would take over or otherwise heavily regulate land ownership and rent in order to ensure its affordability, availability and fair distribution. The model might be more one of cooperative group ownership with some kind of rent oversight rather than outright nationalisation or classic rent control to avoid corruption and minimize the distortion of incentives which are so often attendant upon regulation in this area.
For example, we still want choice to operate, for “price” to reflect choice (i.e. if everyone lives by the sea, prices are higher there), for price to incentivize the “creation” of new land or new alternatives to land, and for quality of land and housing to be maintained and improved. At the same time, cooperative living – perhaps even mass communal living – may not only be effective as a way of allocating this scarce resource most effectively but also offer its own benefits in terms of connection and mutual support, especially in a world increasingly dominated by the digital where we risk retreating into our isolated cocoons with other human contact increasingly infrequent.
Photographs by Jomjakkapat Parrueng unsplash
If you have questions, comments or feedback join our chat channel or follow us on social media