Thursday, October 16, 2008

Economies after the Decline of Capitalism

There have been predictions for years of the crash of civilisation, due to running out of oil, catastrophic climate change, or even epidemics. Few enough people have taken seriously the idea of a crash due to capitalism failing, though. 

For what it's worth, I don't think it's likely, even with panicky stock markets, falling currencies, banks in trouble, and so on, that capitalism will fall. It's enshrined in the entire legal system of the West, in our habits and livelihoods, and the vast majority of us literally have some investment in it, be it savings, land, loans, or whatever.

There is a rising opinion, though, with government bailouts of large financial institutions happening worldwide, that capitalism has now been, for want of a better word, broken. Some people will say it was broken to begin with, others will say it was greedy banks who broke it, and some few will hold the perverse opinion that the bailouts are the breakage, not the fix. 

The problem is: even if we acknowledge that capitalism is broken, what can we replace it with?

I don't think it's possible, or even desirable, to replace capitalism overnight with anything else. We'd need to rewrite our laws, change large chunks of infrastructure, and everyone would need to undergo fairly extensive re-education.

Instead, I'm thinking of the current economic climate as being like an ebbing tide. It has covered over all the underwater mountains of other systems and ideas for some centuries now, but that doesn't mean that they're gone, or that people can't build on them as the decline of capitalism turns them back into visible islands. And new ones may be revealed as well, because who knows what's been going on under the surface?

So here are two things that may happen, on a small or local scale, which can partially replace capitalism.

Small Scale Socialism

This is most visible at the moment in Credit Unions - there are probably similar institutions elsewhere, but that's what we call them here. These are essentially small, community owned banks, which do not (as far as I'm aware) have external debts. They take in savings, give out loans, and pay interest on savings from the interest on the loans. They pay no heed to external credit records, and are very flexible about repayments. These already exist, and they shouldn't be harmed much, if at all, by the damage to larger financial institutions.

The idea of the cooperatives is another sub-surface practice that is going to come into its own again. During the lates 70s and early 80s, when Ireland was in a depression that essentially made it a second-world country, small co-ops sprang up all over. Some still exist as Farmers Co-ops, which sell hardware and farm supplies in rural towns, but there were other, far more local ones where one household kept a couple of pigs, another chickens, another goats for milk, and so on, and the goods were divided up between the participants. And, of course, everyone grew their own vegetables, and when there was a glut of some produce, it got shared with the neighbours. We have the internet and mobile phones now, so this kind of thing should be far easier to arrange.

Small Scale Feudalism

Economic feudalism has never completely gone away. It'll take a greater decline in capitalism to bring it to light, but there are small bits still there. Anyone who pays attention in rural areas of Ireland or the UK knows of a farm where there are labourers who have lived and worked on that farm all their lives, in a house owned by the landholder, and who inherited that position from their parents, grandparents, and so on. Some of these will pass it on to their children. They may receive a paycheck, and pay rent (sometimes nominal) to the landlord, but these people are effectively living in a feudal situation. 

It's hard for many of us to see a feudal situation as being good, but imagine this: you have a situation where your job in a bank has disappeared, and there's no sign that you can get another one that will even pay the rent and bills. Your partner is similar straits; maybe they worked for an insurance company that's gone bust. You're renting an apartment, and while you have some savings, they're not going to last long. And someone comes along and says, "Here, I have a big farm. I need someone to do some numbers, and help with running the place. And maybe drive a tractor, or help with lambing, when the need arises. I'll give you a place to live with heating and water and so on, provide food, and pay you a bit as well. I need people who aren't going to jump ship, and you need some security. How about it?"

And suddenly, feudalism looks a lot more reasonable.

I've no doubt there are other systems I haven't thought of, more equitable ones, or those that use modern technology better. I'm looking forward to finding out about them.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Secret Suffrage in an Era Without Privacy

My new job has led me into all kinds of interesting fields of research and thinking. One of these fields is eGovernment, and I was involved in running a conference dealing with advances in eGovernment earlier this week. 

One of the speakers observed that the generation currently coming to voting age have completely different expectations with regard to privacy. They fully expect anyone in public life to have a visible profile somewhere - not necessarily Facebook, or social networks, but a profile page on a local council website, or an election site, or the like - which would include various personal details, pictures, and so forth. Having been exposed to 'fake' personalities as marketing tools all their lives, they're perfectly ready to conclude that if they can't find this information online, these public figures don't actually exist, any more than Ronald McDonald exists. The concept that the public figure might not want those details online is completely incomprehensible to them; they happily put up all their own details, and privacy simply is not an issue for them.

The next step is that they fully expect to see voting records for public figures. This makes sense in many ways, and indeed, voting records can be found for some bodies. It's the next step which gets interesting in this context - are these people going to comprehend a secret ballot? Is it going to be something alien to them? With that level of secrecy, how do you know that a given person is voting Labour? Might he not just say he's voting Labour, and then tick all the boxes for Sinn Fein when nobody can see him? Of course he might, and according to the original thinking, that's a strength and virtue of the system. But I'm starting to wonder if that won't be seen as a flaw.