Thursday, June 2, 2011

Call me Dave

I had a dream last month in which I had to sell the idea of a sustainable energy future to a bunch of sceptics who were high tech free market enthusiasts, beloved of capitalism. One seemed to be David Cameron. My answer went like this.

Centralised political, economic and technological system are complex and in theory are held together by market forces. Market info flows (and elections) ensure that what consumers (and voters) want drives the system. In reality, many of the agencies and corporations actually run internally via strategic planning - on lines which would make Stalin proud! And they try to make sure that we want what they want - again all very Soviet. Cybernetic information theory says we can do better than this- we can have instant electronic feedback on needs and preferences. Up to a point, the current system has adopted some of this, as long as it doesn’t challenge basic patterns of ownership and control, and the distribution of power and wealth.

Decentralists and ecologists (and, dare I say, green socialists) think we can do better still, by changing the structure as well. By making more components of the system self-managed, as happens in nature, although set within an overall framework of homeostasis- balancing and protecting overall system priorities (survival being a central one, along with reproduction). Philosophers have tried to describe society like this (e.g. Hobbes’ Leviathan - though with a king!) and anarcho-syndicalists and their ilk have tried to create societies run this way. Some worked briefly, but most have fallen foul of what is sometimes called human nature. I’d say it was just human failings. But no doubt reinforced by the pressures of the sea of capitalism outside.

I was much taken by the system that was developed in Yugoslavia after the Second World War. All enterprises with more than 15 employees were run by an elected workers council who dispensed profits to staff and some to the local community, at their own discretion, less 15% that went to the central state for national projects - including defence, transport links and regional grants to cope with the fact that the north was richer than the south. It sounded ideal and survived quite well, independent of the Soviet block, and with strict limits on inward investment from overseas, for many years- until the generally popular charismatic wartime partisan leader, Tito, died.

Then all hell broke out. The ancient religious and ethnic tensions, which you might hope had been washed away by a few decades of democratic self-management and wealth redistribution, resurfaced with a vengeance. The rest is history- a bloody mess. Scholars of history may be able to tell me more about why, but it was certainly saddening. However that’s no reason not to try again. The system we have now is in no way proof against blood letting- indeed it seems to thrive on it.

At this point I woke up. So now it’s over to you. Is this part of your dream too? Can we do better- in reality, not just in dreams? Or do we to have more business as usual, possibly just adjusted to be a bit more green?

The alterative technical agenda seem relatively clear - although there is a lot of detail to thrash out. But the political agenda is much less clear. Who will push for the right way ahead? On what basis of analysis? Representing which constituencies? In terms of approach, I was much taken by this quote from Fredrich Engels,: "The analysis of nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organic bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of nature that have been made during the last four hundred years. But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constants, not as essentially variables, in their death, not in their life. And when this way of looking at things was transferred by Bacon and Locke from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the preceding centuries."

An early green holistic thinker! We need more like that.

I wrote the above before Adam Curtis’ TV blitz "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" emerged. He seems to be another. We need to go beyond machine thinking and re-engage with challenging power- and that means looking beyond the current structures.

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