The Origin of Money – 2

1. Tally sticks – The First Credits.

A number of notched bones have survived from the Ice Age. The notches and marks made on these bones were clearly made by humans for some sort of intentional purpose.

The interpretation of these bones is, or course, highly speculative. However, a convincing argument has been put forward by studying the patterns inscribed on them that these bones were used as a form of primitive record-keeping. The patterns on them indicate a careful tracking of the lunar waxing and waning as a way of marking off time. Lunar cycles would have been used to track the migrations of herds, the reproductive and moulting patterns of animals, the growth of plants, and even the menstrual cycles of fertile females. In this latter role, they may be related to the enigmatic so-called “Venus figurines,” found throughout Ice-Age Europe, which appear to be pregnant females.

These calendrical rhythms were also used to order the ritual life of Ice Age peoples, indicating that even at this distant phase of history, humans were extremely social and not just isolated bands roaming peripatetically across the landscape:

Calendrical rhythms determined the times when sparse populations came together in the seasonal gatherings that were the occasions for exchange – of family members as well as gifts. These ritual sites typically were on rivers, often near distinguishing natural features such as caves. The most famous sites were orientated to the rising or setting of the sun at the four major points of the year, the solstices and equinoxes….

After the Ice Age (Michael Hudson)

The Lembobo bone is a fibula of a baboon with artificial notches on it which was found in a cave in Swaziland which dates from the Paleolithic period-about 45,000 years ago. The notches are thought to represent some sort of calendrical counting system, probably based on the phases of the moon. The Ishango bone is another baboon fibula bone from about 20,000 years ago bearing similar markings. This is thought to also have a possible lunar calendrical function, but it has also been speculated that it may represent a tally stick. The Wolf Bone, found in Europe and dated from about 30,000 years ago, is another example.

These tally sticks may have been single tally, in which an object is notched as a mnemonic device. Examples include the messenger sticks of the Inuit people, and the knotted strings used many native American tribes. In Peru, these evolved into the khipu: the bundles of strings used to manage the inventory of the Inka redistributive economy.

The other tally stick “technology” was the split tally, in which both parties to a transaction retained a copy of the transaction record as a means of verification. One half would go to the debtor, and the other half to the creditor. Some unique item which could be split apart was chosen, such as stick or a bone. The natural variability of the split and of the material itself prevented forgery. The ancient Chinese used bamboo sticks about the size of two chopsticks for this purpose.

In Medieval England, tally sticks were made of hazelwood harvested from the banks of the Thames near parliament. Such wood had a distinct feel and grain to prevent counterfeiting. Each tally stick would be squared off and marked–V-shaped notches would represent pounds, broad grooves would indicate shillings, and sharp notches would indicate pence. A debtor’s name and a short description of the transaction would be inscribed, and the stick would be split vertically in two down the center. The debtor would retain one piece, called the “foil,” while the creditor would receive the other piece, called the “stock.”

The portion of the stick retained by the creditor retained the entirety of the original base where the stick was cut from the tree or branch to prevent counterfeiting. If marks were altered by one party, the discrepancy would be obvious to the other, making sure the transaction was secure. In fact, the term “stock” used in tallies is the origin of our term today:

Curiously, our modern use of the term “stock” to represent a share in a corporation may derive from the stock and foil technology. Almost certainly the British term for fixed income obligations–stocks–comes directly from the use of stocks and foils up to the early nineteenth century to record loans to the Bank of England. For generations, to have “stock” in the Bank of England literally meant that one held a creditor’s wooden stock, and dividends were presumably collected by presentation of the stock at the bank.

The Origins of Value, p. 110

The tally system survived in England and was a major means for raising funds by the Exchequer for at least six centuries. Often times the credit portion might be transferred to someone else as a form of “payment.” That is tally sticks circulated as money–transferable credit. If the king needed money, he would “raise a tally” by issuing tally sticks addressed to the local tax collector in place of cash. These sticks would then circulate: their value came from the fact that they could be used to pay the tax obligation. The sticks would be presented at the time of tax collection (“I already paid”). In this way, they circulated as bills of exchange.

Geoffrey Gardiner imagines what such a system might look like in a pre-literate society:

Let us assume that the huntsman is in need of a supply of arrows, but until he can hunt he has nothing to give in exchange. So he promises the fletcher ten haunches of venison in exchange for a supply of arrows. In modern terminology he is asking for ‘trade credit.’ In evidence of his promise he notches ten bones and gives them to the fletcher. These are his ‘markers.’ The fletcher needs wood, so he asks the woodsman for trade credit, promising haunches of venison when the hunter has been successful. He could hand over some of the markers of the huntsman as evidence of his promise. The various deals might be notified to the headman, who, we may confidently assume, will also require a reward of venison in return for a promise to enforce the deals. The huntsman gets his arrows, and goes off to the hunt. Having been successful, he pays off his debts to the holders of his markers. The chief gets his reward too.

Wray, Credit and State Theory of Money, p. 119

In reality, the above scenario is not very likely. We know from anthropological studies that In small-scale tribal societies, cooperation is given open-handedly, without the need to have some sort of formal record of who owes what to whom.

But perhaps the notched bones above indicate some sort of dealing with outsiders, perhaps from another tribe. We know that rituals took place at certain specified portions of the year, and during these rituals, exchanges took place. In fact, we know that ritual reciprocal exchange was explicitly designed to establish and maintain social bonds in disparate groups, as in the Kula trade.

Such rituals and exchanges probably took place long before the advent of domesticated agriculture, far back into the Ice Age. The presence of seashell ornaments hundreds of miles inland indicates that such trade routes existed as far back as the Ice Age. We also know, for example, that the ochre used to decorate the painted cave walls at Lascaux did not come from the same region, or nearby, but instead came from hundreds of miles away from deep beneath the earth’s surface, probably changing hands along the way. This ocher indicates that already in the Ice Age there must have already been some sort of primitive “mining” industry.

The aboriginal natives of Australia lived a Stone-Age existence and yet had complex trade routes between various tribes, exchanging stones, ochres, tools, hides, ceremonial items and other resources. Tribes would come together at certain specified portions of the year for rituals involving music and dancing. At these rituals, ceremonial trade would take place.

On the Daly River, south of Darwin, trade took place at occasions when neighbouring tribes gathered for other reasons such as initiation or sacred ceremonies…each man and woman had a special trading partner in a complex network of gift exchange. A vast network of trade routes criss-crossed the Australian continent prior to white settlement, after which the trade contacts were soon broken. Pearl shell was traded from tribe to tribe to the Nullarbor Plain. Native tobacco moved from the central ranges to the south of the continent, while wombat fur for twine making moved from the south to the north. Stone spear heads were traded from the central Australian quarries to the tribes of Arnhem Land.

It’s possible that the tally sicks, whether single or split, were the earliest permanent records of economic transactions that we know of. Such items indicate that money is not a “thing” but transferable credits (neither the bones nor sticks themselves had any intrinsic value). Their simplicity is deceptive. In fact, they are surprisingly effective financial instruments, which is attested to by the longevity. The Napoleonic Code recognized them as valid financial instruments, and some were still in use in part of Central Europe into the Twentieth Century. When the Bank of England retired them from circulation in favor of coins and paper money in the nineteenth century, the tally sticks were burned en masse in a bonfire. The resulting fire burned down the Houses of Parliament; today’s iconic Gothic Revival building alongside the Thames is its replacement.

We cannot be sure that such arrangements ever happened exactly as thus surmised, but notched bones do survive from hunter-gatherer settlements of the Stone Age. Indeed, some are very elaborately notched, suggesting to some scholars quite sophisticated accounting. Others claim that the earliest notched bones are calendrical in character. This scholarly dispute may be of no great significance as accounting techniques must at some stage absorb calendrical technology, as time is an important factor in accounting, and the transition from astronomical notation to a notation of obligations is, we are informed, documented by c. 9000 BC.

Sticks are easier to notch than bones, and the notched stick was the main method of keeping permanent accounts in places with ample supplies of wood until the end of the 18th century. In Chapter 5 of The Universal History of Numbers (1994) Georges Ifrah introduces his readers to the mode of using notched sticks. In the first sentence of the English edition of this comprehensive work of impressive scholarship he tells his readers that notched sticks – tally sticks – were first used at least 40,000 years ago. He states that as a method of accounting the notched stick has stood the test of time. He suggests that only the invention of fire is older technology than the accounting tally.

In the first part of the chapter Georges Ifrah describes notched sticks merely as a means of counting, but on the second page he explains how the tally can be used as a form of bill and receipt, and then likens it to a wooden credit card, nearly as efficient and reliable as the plastic ones with magnetic stripes and microchips with which people today are so familiar.

Wray, Credit and State Theory of Money, pp. 119-120

The next archaeological indicators of formal economic arrangements are small clay tokens found throughout archaeological sites in the ancient Near East after 9000 BC. But to understand their role, we must first understand the changing nature of social relations are we moved into the Neolithic (farming) period of history. The changing nature of social relations due to farming, especially irrigated farming, is necessary to understanding the origin of money.

The Origin of Money – 1

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”
–J.M Keynes

Last time we saw that the “conventional” definition of money does not hold in an anthropological context. We saw that different “money-things” functioned in different and often distinct spheres of exchange. We also saw that “money” was used primarily to discharge social obligations, rather than being used in closed-ended spot transactions. Often times, money used in market exchanges was kept distinct and separate from what was used in reciprocal social obligations, often to protect social relationships from monetization, as Karl Polanyi pointed out.

These facts are important to keep in mind when discussing the history of money.

1. The conventional theory is wrong

The conventional view is that money evolved to reduce transaction costs in an imaginary barter society. An intermediate commodity that would serve as a “medium of exchange” would be chosen by all members of the community through a process of trial-and-error. Not just any item would do, however. It had to be durable. It had to portable. It had to be divisible. And it couldn’t be too common, otherwise money would lost its value.

Gold (and silver), being all of these things, gradually emerged as the most logical choice. It does not oxidize or decay. It is malleable into different shapes. It is portable. It is reasonably rare:

Karl Menger, an Austrian economist, set out one school of thought as long ago as 1892. In his version of events, the monetisation of an economy starts when agricultural communities move away from subsistence farming and start to specialise. This brings efficiency gains but means that trade with others becomes necessary. The problem is that operating markets on the basis of barter is a pain: you have to scout around looking for the rare person who wants what you have and has what you want.

Money evolves to reduce barter costs, with some things working better than others. The commodity used as money should not lose value when it is bought and sold. So clothing is a bad money, since no one places the same value on second-hand clothes as new ones. Instead, something that is portable, durable (fruit and vegetables are out) and divisible into smaller pieces is needed. Menger called this property “saleableness”. Spices and shells are highly saleable, explaining their use as money. Government plays no role here. The origin of money is a market-led response to barter costs, in which the best money is that which minimises the costs of trade. Menger’s is a good description of how informal monies, such as those used by prisoners, originate.

On the origin of specie (The Economist)

Alfred Mitchell-Innes, the author of a groundbreaking paper on the true origins of money, laid out the conventional theory this way:

…under primitive conditions men lived and live by barter…as life becomes more complex barter no longer suffices as a method of exchanging commodities, and by common consent one particular commodity is fixed on which is generally acceptable; and which therefore, everyone will take in exchange for the things he produces or the services he renders and which each in turn can equally pass on to others in exchange for whatever he may want…this commodity thus becomes a “medium of exchange and measure of value.”

…a sale is the exchange of a commodity for this intermediate commodity which is called “money;”…many different commodities have at various times and places served as this medium, of exchange, – cattle, iron, salt, shells, dried cod, tobacco, sugar, nails, etc.;

…gradually the metals, gold, silver, copper, and more especially the first two, came to be regarded as being by their inherent qualities more suitable for this purpose than any other commodities and these metals early became by common consent the only medium of exchange…

What the Classical and Austrian economists did, in essence, was to try and imagine the origin of money by envisioning a society much like their own–Western European market societies, complete with dense populations of strangers, centralized governments and banks, and occupational specialization–and then take money away. How would people cope? They would have to barter for things, of course! And then they constructed the rest of the narrative from there.

However, this is bad anthropology, and bad science. Ancient societies were very different from their own market-oriented societies. Market societies are a historical contingency based on a great variety of factors, many which were not known to classical economists. You cannot simply imagine one’s own society, complete with all its various complex political and socioeconomic arrangements, and then take away one variable to construct the history of that variable.

Rather than using empirical reasoning to arrive at their conclusions, they used deductivist reasoning not rooted in actual data. Their conclusions were also predicated on the aggregate actions of isolated individuals who had no pre-existing social relationships with each other, something also not found in actual societies.

Several problems emerged almost immediately with this narrative. One is the extreme unlikelihood of a single standard emerging without recourse to some sort of established central authority, as Randy Wray notes:

Orthodoxy has never been able to explain how individual utility maximizers settled on a single numeraire. While the use of a single unit of account results in efficiencies, it is not clear what evolutionary process would have generated the single unit. Further, the higgling and haggling of the market is supposed to produce the equilibrium vector of relative prices, all of which can be denominated in the single numeraire. However, this presupposes a fairly high degree of specialization of labor and/or resource ownership–but this pre-market specialization, itself, is hard to explain.

Once markets are reasonably well-developed, specialization increases welfare; however, without well-developed markets, specialization is exceedingly risky, while diversification of skills and resources would be prudent. It seems exceedingly unlikely that either markets or a money of account could have evolved out of individual utility maximizing behavior.

Geoffrey Ingham argues that the typical sequence has it backwards: money had to be established first, before markets could form. Otherwise, how could anonymous market exchanges take place? In other words, money is historically anterior to markets, and therefore could not have emerged out of innumerable market transactions:

‘In the first place, without making a number of implausible assumptions, it is difficult to envisage that an agreed money of account could emerge from myriad bilateral barter exchange ratios, as the Mengerian commodity theory implies. How could discrete barter exchange of, say, 3 chickens to 1 duck or 6 ducks to 1 chicken, and so on, produce a universally recognised unit of account? The conventional answer that a ‘duck standard’ would emerge ‘spontaneously’ involves a circular argument. A single ‘duck standard’ cannot be the equilibrium price of ducks established by supply and demand because, in the absence of a money of account, ducks would continue to have a range of unstable exchange ratios.

As opposed to discrete truck and barter, which produces myriad bilateral exchange ratios, a true market, which produces a single price for ducks requires first and foremost a stable unit of account’.

As we have seen, most specialization took place within the context of a redistributive economy, whereby specialized products would be collected and redistributed by some sort of central authority such a tribal chief, religious authority, or palace, rather than a market-oriented one. Other economies functioned on a household basis where craft specialists were members of the same household and produced items for internal use of the group rather than external market exchange. Although some specialists might sell their surplus goods outside of the household context, and households exchanged surplus commodities with each other, this likely was not done through barter exchanges. Instead, merchant intermediaries would likely acquire surplus commodities from various households and store them for later use. These merchants would then match up goods with buyers over time in their shops. In other words, the producer was usually not also a seller. This was just as likely conducted through credit/debit relationships rather than though barter. This is how many small village markets operate even today in developing countries.

Another flaw in this theory is that very often specialist producers would have nothing to barter with until they first procured the the land or raw materials they needed in order to create their item. This means exchanges are often spaced out in time as well as space, requiring not spot transactions but, once again, credit.

For example, a farmer needs to acquire land and seeds long before she has any crop to sell. A herdsman needs to first procure the cattle for breeding before he can sell the calves. A smith needs to first procure metal before he can forge a tool. All of these exchanges require not spot trades, but rather credit. This means that barter was an unlikely basis for an economy even in more complex, specialized Neolithic economies:

The idea that barter, that is the direct free exchange of goods and services, was a viable basis for an economy is unrealistic for two reasons. First, due to the seasonal nature of many products, the things which people need to exchange may not be produced at the same time of the year.

Second, and even more important, is the fact that most productive activities involve a sequence of stages from the production of the primary raw material to the sale of the finished product. The perfecter of the finished article has nothing to exchange with the producer of the raw material: the latter has to supply on credit terms, that is on trust that at some future time he will be reimbursed in some way.

Wray, Credit and State Theory of Money pp. 118-119

There are other problems as well. The historical evidence indicates that in ancient times, precious metals were far too valuable to be used in everyday transactions:

it should not be accepted on faith that using monetary metal was simpler than barter. To begin with, the high value of silver and gold implied that they would be used only for large transactions. In the Old Babylonian period (2000-1600 BC), notes Marvin Powell, a shekel ‘represented a month’s pay’, thereby limiting the ability of most people to pay on the spot for consumer transactions. Measuring smaller quantities of monetary metal became more error-prone, with deviations rising to about 3 per cent for small weights.

Wray, Credit and State Theories of Money p. 101

This “stable unit of account” is what allowed markets to form and market trading to take place. It was a schedule of price equivalencies evaluated against a common standard which allowed market trading to take place. All historical and anthropological evidence indicates that this stable unit of account was established through the actions some sort of central governing authority, whether political or religious, in every society. In other words, money was first and foremost a social technology which facilitated cooperation and trade; it was not generated spontaneously through the gain-seeking actions of numerous “rugged individualists” by osmosis. It was a way of recording debts and credits, and was never an intrinsically valuable “thing.” The fact that precious metals were used to keep track of these is a historical contingency which masks the true nature of money.

In addition, coins are what have survived. The systems of credit clearing which underlay these items do not preserve in the archaeological record. This gives the mistaken impression that the precious metals contained in coins were what was being traded for, and credit was just a substitute–a promise to pay gold and silver later because the former were just to hard to carry around.

The flaws of the conventional theory are summed up by Tim Johnson:

The narrative that money emerges out of barter has become part of received wisdom and as with most ‘common sense’, it has no basis in fact. Just as astrophysicists use telescopes to look back in time, anthropologists visit isolated communities to see how society evolved, and the evidence of this research is summarised by Caroline Humphrey (a.k.a. Lady Rees of Ludlow):

“Barter is at once a cornerstone of modern economic theory and an ancient subject of debate about political justice, from Plato and Aristotle onwards. In both discourses, which are distinct though related, barter provides the imagined preconditions for the emergence of money …[however] No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.” [Humphrey, 1985, p 48]

What actually happens in practice is that when individuals knew each other, exchange was based on reciprocity; a gift would be given in the anticipation of it being reciprocated in the future (when they don’t know each other there is barter, but in such situations money cannot emerge because cowrie shells might be important in one society, and gold in another).

One of the most famous stories illustrating the role of reciprocal exchange has concerns an anthropologist who after spending some time with bushmen, gave one of them his knife. When visiting the group some years later, anthropologists discovered that the knife had been owned, at some point in time, by every member of the community. The knife had not been communally owned, its ownership had passed from one person to the next and its passage was evidence of a social network in the community, just as the motion of planets is evidence of an, otherwise invisible, gravitational field.

Lady Credit (Magic, Maths and Money)

So how did money really come about? That’s what we’ll start to look at next time.

What Is Money?

1. Money is what money does.

What is money? It seems like a such simple question, but is anything but. For most of us, money is anything we can use to pay for stuff. It is the thing we earn at our jobs, which we then use to buy everything we need.

But in traditional societies, there are no “jobs” and no “markets.” So did they have money? If not, did they have “wealth?”

The usual way to define what constitutes “money” is to use the customary tripartite division given in economics textbooks: money is a means of exchange, a store of value, and a unit of account. For example, this Web site gives the “conventional” definition of money:

The item serves as a medium of exchange. In order for an item to be considered money, it must be widely accepted as payment for goods and services. In this way, money creates efficiency because it eliminates uncertainty regarding what is going to be accepted as payment by various businesses.

The item serves as a unit of account. In order for an item to be considered money, it must be the unit that prices, bank balances, etc. are reported in. Having a consistent unit of account creates efficiency since it would be pretty confusing to have the price of bread quoted as a number of fish, the price of fish quoted in terms of t-shirts, and so on.

The item serves as a store of value. In order for an item to be considered money, it has to (to a reasonable degree) hold its purchasing power over time. This feature of money adds to efficiency because it gives producers and consumers flexibility in the timing of purchases and sales, eliminating the need to immediately trade one’s income for goods and services.

As these properties suggest, money was introduced to societies as a means of making economic transactions simpler and more efficient, and it mostly succeeds in that regard. In some situations, items other than officially designated currency have been used as money in various economies.

For example, it used to be somewhat common in countries with unstable governments (and also in prisons) to use cigarettes as money, even though there was no official decree that cigarettes served that function.

But it turns out that this definition of money is highly misleading. By using the customary tripartite definition of money, we define what money is. That is, anything that fulfills all of the above criteria is “true” money, and by extension, anything that does not meet all of the these criteria is not “true” money” or maybe, “partial” money, or “money-like”.

But this is a mistake, argues anthropologist George Dalton, in his essay, Primitive Money (PDF). It is incorrect to determine what constitutes “true” money by comparing it to the Dollars, Yen, Pounds, Euros, Francs, Yuan, Pesos, Dinars, and so on, that we use in our market-oriented, capitalist economies. In our societies, these functions are all carried out by a single object that we call “money.”

In traditional societies, however, these purposes may be accomplished by a whole host of other “money-things.” When we see such items used in exchanges, we call these “money-things” primitive money:

…if one asks what is “primitive” about a particular money, one may come away with two answers: the money-stuff-woodpecker scalps, sea shells, goats, dog teeth-is primitive (i.e., different from our own); and the uses to which the money-stuff is sometimes put-mortuary payments, bloodwealth, bridewealth—are primitive (i.e., different from our own).

Dalton summarizes the ways in which primitive money differs from the type of money used in modern market-based industrial economies:

Primitive money performs some of the functions of our own money, but rarely all; the conditions under which supplies are forthcoming are usually different; primitive money is used in some ways ours is not; our money is impersonal and commercial, while primitive money frequently has pedigree and personality, sacred uses, or moral and emotional connections. Our governmental authorities control the quantity of money, but this is rarely so in primitive economies.

The problem with the customary tripartite definition of money is that the distinctive features of what we call “money” all derive from us living in Western-style market-oriented economies with centralized governments and banking systems. As a result, they simply do not apply to primitive economies! For this reason, Dalton argues, judging what constitutes “primitive money” by comparing it with our own is fundamentally wrong. As Dalton points out, we would never do that in other areas of life when trying to understand other cultures:

[Anthropologists]…use the bundle of attributes money has in Western market economy to comprise a model of true money. They then judge whether or not money-like stuff in primitive economies is really money by how closely the uses of the primitive stuff resemble our own-a strange procedure for anthropologists who would never use the bundle of attributes of the Western family, religion, or political organization in such a way… Anthropologists do not hesitate to contrive special terms for special actions and institutions when to use terms from their own society would be misleading. They do not talk about the family, but about nuclear, extended, and matrilineal families. The same should be done with economic matters…

Other societies have very different social and economic arrangements than our own. In cultures where markets are absent or peripheral, and where banking systems are nonexistent, the type of anonymous, all-purpose “money-stuff” that we use in daily life is unknown. Many items in traditional cultures serve as “money-stuff,” but do not fulfill all of the criteria listed above, causing anthropologists and economists to erroneously dismiss them as not being “true” money.

In order to truly understand what constitutes “primitive” money, Dalton argues, we need to know how it is used, what it is used for, and who is using it. We typically do not make such distinctions when talking about Western capitalist market economies because it is assumed that all exchange is mediated by impersonal market transactions. Also, most exchanges are essentially commercial in nature, with other money uses being subsidiary. However, this is not the case in traditional cultures where markets play only a tangential role in social affairs:

Dollars have that set of uses called medium of exchange, means of payment, standard of value, etc., precisely because our economy is commercially organized. Where economies are organized differently, non-commercial uses of monetary objects become important, and ‘‘money” takes on different characteristics.

The question is not-as it is conventionally put-are shells, woodpecker scalps, cattle, goats, dog teeth, or Kula valuables “really” “money?” It is, rather, how are the similarities and the differences between such items and dollars related to similarities and differences in socio-economic structure?

To concentrate attention on money traits independently of underlying [social] organization leads writers to use the traits of Western money as a model of the real thing (while ignoring the structure of Western economy which accounts for the money traits). Then any primitive money which does not have all the traits of the Western model money is simply ruled out by definition-it is not money. This does not get us very far towards understanding primitive and peasant economies…

Dalton identifies three major types of economic arrangements distinct from the types of cosmopolitan, commercially-oriented market-based societies that we live in in the West. The uses and definitions of money are subsequently determined by these socio-economic arrangements. It should be noted that most economies prior to the advent of modern Western industrial capitalism fall into one of these three major categories:

Type I: Marketless – In marketless communities, land and labor are not transacted by purchase and sale but are allocated as expressions of kinship right or tribal affiliation. There are no formal market-place sites where indigenously produced items are bought and sold. These are “subsistence” economies in the sense that livelihood does not depend on production for sale. The transactional modes to allocate resources and labor as well as produced items and services are reciprocity and redistribution…

Type II: Peripheral Markets Only – Everything said above about marketless economies holds true for those with only peripheral markets, with one exception: market-place sites exist in which a narrow range of produce is bought and sold, either with some moneystuff used as medium of (commercial) exchange, or via barter in the economist’s sense (moneyless market exchange). We call these market exchanges “peripheral” because land and labor are not bought and sold and because most people do not get the bulk of their income from market sales…

Type III: Market-Dominated (Peasant) Economies – Small-scale market-dominated communities share with our own nationally integrated market economy the following features: (i) a large proportion of land and labor as well as goods and services are transacted by market purchase and sale; (ii) most people depend upon market sale of labor or products for livelihood; (iii) market prices integrate production. Labor and land move into and out of different production lines in response to profit (and other income) alternatives, as indicated by market prices. In such economies, the medium of (commercial) exchange function of money is the most important; the other commercial uses of money facilitate market transactions, and the same money is used for non-commercial transactions.

Peasant economies differ from primitive (subsistence) economies in that peasant producers depend upon production for sale. However, both peasant and primitive communities differ from large-scale, developed, nationally integrated Western economies on two counts: modern machine technology is largely absent, and traditional social organization and cultural practices are largely retained.

Rather than trying to define what money is in traditional economies, we should be looking at what money does. What may function as money in one context (e.g. the settling of debts), may not function in another (e.g. a means of exchange), and still again not in another (e.g. a store of value). It is also determined by the social relations between parties to the exchange. Different types of money are used in different types of transactions. For example, market exchange is very different from reciprocal gift exchange, which might be again different than redistribution carried out by centralized authorities such as chiefs or village elders.

For example, no one would head off to the marketplace with a herd of cattle in order to purchase things on sale from the vendors there. But cattle are often described as “money” in primitive societies because they are used for payments such as dowries. Cowrie shells might serve for impersonal market exchange with strangers, but would be inappropriate for bride exchange, restitution payments, or payments to authorities. In addition, the units used to denominate the exchange might be completely different from the objects used to settle the transaction. Debts denominated in a unit of account might be settled with any number of items— livestock, sea shells, tobacco, salt, bags of valuables, semi-precious stones, etc. Thus, it is very different from the type of general-purpose money that we are used to.

For example, payments to centralized political institutions in many ancient cultures were  extracted in the form of labor (corvée). This appears to have been the earliest known form of “taxation.” So is labor “money?” In ancient Mesopotamia, labor for large institutions was often remunerated with goods such as oil, salt, barley and beer. Does that make things like barley and beer “money?”

Not only does our definition of money distort our view of other cultures, but of historical economies as well. Many economic historians try and jam previous social relations into the Procrustean bed of “market” exchange by looking at the similarities, without acknowledging the differences. This allows them to claim that markets are timeless and universal—a natural feature of the human species stemming from our alleged innate desire for profit. But our modern economic arrangements, centered as they are around market exchange, may not be appropriate for analyzing past societies:

If we have a hard time applying modern economic theory to ancient societies, it is straightforward to see that we cannot get too exercised about the instruments that they used as money. For us, the notion of money is intertwined with the existence of a banking system. Modern banking system[s] developed over centuries, and they are far more complex entities than their equivalents in earlier eras. We will have a hard time relating our notions of money to the views of ancients…

Our exclusive focus on commercial exchange obscures the multiple roles that various “money-things” played in traditional societies. We tend to define money solely by market purchases (a medium of exchange).

In traditional societies, however, most exchanges are not impersonal commercial transactions, but instead are based on the discharging of reciprocal social obligations–for example, dowries, bridewealth, restitution for crimes to aggrieved parties (i.e. bloodwealth, weregeld), offerings to the gods/ancestors, initiation fees, child growth payments, military compensation, mortuary payments, tribute, and so on. Many things fulfill the functions of “money” in these contexts, but are very different from the type of general-purpose money we use in market transactions. As Marcel Mauss noted in The Gift, most exchanges in traditional, small-scale, societies are based around reciprocal gift-giving, and not market exchange for profit.

By contrast, the money that we use is a product of centralized institutions such as governments and banks in order to facilitate commercial (i.e. Impersonal market) transactions in fully-integrated, price-fixing markets:

The medium of (commercial) exchange function of money in our economy is its dominant function, and all other commercial uses of money are dependently linked-derived from-the use of dollars as media of (commercial) exchange.

For example, dollars are also used as a means of (commercial) payment of debt arising from market transactions. It is purchase and sale of resources, goods, and services which create the money functions of means of (commercial) payment and standard for deferred (commercial) payment. All the commercial uses of money are consequences of market integration, simply reflecting the highly organized credit and accounting arrangements that facilitate market purchases.

This is why economists in writing about our economy need not attach the qualifier “commercial” to the money uses. Indeed, we in our market-integrated national economy sometimes regard the terms “money” and “medium of exchange” as interchangeable. But for primitive communities where market transactions are absent or infrequent, it would be distorting to identify money with medium of (commercial) exchange…

In market-oriented societies, most items are for sale (alienable) and this is coordinated by prices, which assumes a concept of universal economic value which is often lacking from non-market societies. Furthermore, selling and producing for the market is absolutely essential for survival for most people, unlike traditional (i.e. subsistence) economies. Market transactions are usually impersonal and anonymous, and do not depend on status relations between the buyer and seller. In traditional societies, however, the social relations between giver and receiver are paramount. Thus, primitive money is often neither impersonal nor fungible:

…our market economy [is] based on contract rather than status…having the money price is a sufficient condition for buying most goods. Not only is Western money anonymous, so to speak, but money users are also anonymous: the market sells to whoever has the purchase price and only rarely imposes status prerequisites on the use of money as medium of (commercial) exchange.

In contrast, there usually are status prerequisites in non-commercial uses of primitive money. For example, in the use of cattle as means of (reciprocal) payment of bridewealth, status requisites such as lineage, age, rank of the persons, must be complied with. The money users are not anonymous, and a special kind of limited purpose money is necessary to the transaction.

In addition to not being fungible, primitive money is often not divisible. Certain “monies” can only be used for certain types of transactions, and “lower” money is not necessarily convertible into “higher” forms, like we are used to with our cents adding up to quarters adding up to dollars. Seeing money through our own system leads to mistakes and distortions, as Dalton points out using the example of papers written about the shell money used on Rossel Island in the Pacific by an economist named W.E. Armstrong in the 1920’s:

Armstrong asserts that Rossel Island money is a rough equivalent of our own: that it is a medium of exchange used to purchase a wide range of goods and services, and that it is a standard of value for stating prices…The Rossel Islanders use two types of shell money, ndap and nko. Ndap money consists of individual shells (Armstrong calls them coins), each of which belongs to one of 22 named classes or denominations, which Armstrong ranks from 1-22, a higher numbered class indicating a higher valued shell…

By ranking [Rossel island shell monies] 1-22 Armstrong implies that the differences between ndap shell classes are cardinal differences: that a No. 22 is 22 times more valuable than a No. 1, in the sense that a $20 bill is 20 times more valuable than a $1 bill. There are no such cardinal differences among ndap shells. To number them 1-22 is to give a false impression of similarity between ndap shell classes and Western money denominations and a false impression about the commensurability or the “purchasing power” relationship between lower and higher numbered ndap shells … the shells are not quite like dollar bills numbered 1-22 with a No. 20 (say), bearing twice the value of a No. 10, or an item priced at No. 20 purchasable with two shells of No. 10 variety… something priced at No. 20 must be paid for with a No. 20 shell, rather than with lower denomination pieces adding up to 20. ..Nos. 18-22 cannot be acquired by any amount of lower class shells, and there is no way of gauging how many times more valuable a No. 18 is compared to a No. 6 because they enter entirely different transactions.

Without exception, Nos. 18-22 enter non-commercial transactions exclusively: they are used as means of (reciprocal or redistributive) payment or exchange in transactions induced by social obligation. Payments of a No. 18 are a necessary part of ordinary bridewealth, as well as necessary payment for shared wives, and for sponsoring a pig or dog feast, or a feast initiating the use of a special kind of canoe. No. 20 is a necessary indemnity payment to the relatives of a man ritually murdered and eaten, a transaction which is part of mortuary rites for the death of a chief. Moreover, there is a connection between shells 18-22 and lineage affiliation which Armstrong notes but makes nothing of. “. . . Nos. 18 to 22 are regarded as property peculiar to chiefs, though continually lent by the latter to their subjects.”

Primitive money is often not general purpose. As seen above, very different “money-things” may be used for different (and distinct) purposes–reciprocal gift exchange, centralized redistribution, the settling of debts, payments to collective institutions (i.e. taxes), restitution, and so on:

In primitive economies-i.e., small-scale economies not integrated by market exchange-different uses of money may be institutionalized separately in different monetary objects to carry out reciprocal and redistributive transactions. These money objects used in non-commercial ways are usually distinct from any that enter market place transactions. And the items which perform non-commercial money uses need not be full-time money, so to speak; they have uses and characteristics apart from their ability to serve as a special kind of money.

In contrast, the dollars that we use are general-purpose, and can be used by both private and public entities for anything-the settlement of debts, the payment of taxes and fines, redistribution, gift exchange, etc.

Primitive money is often non-commercial. Many exchanges take place outside of the market:

…anthropologists use Western monetary terms ambiguously whenever they fail to distinguish between the market and the non-commercial modes of transaction. [Conrad] Reining, for example, states: “There seems to have been little exchange among households although iron tools and spears made from locally smelted ore had a limited application as a medium of exchange, being used primarily for marriage payments”

…Since brides are not acquired through impersonal market transactions by random buyers and sellers, the iron tools are not used as media of (market) exchange, but as media of (reciprocal) exchange: as part of a non-commercial transaction in which a man acquires a bundle of rights in a woman and her children in return for iron tools and other indemnification payments to her kin…

It seems useful to regard the bridewealth items as special purpose “money” because the iron tools and spears-or in other societies, cows or goats-are the required items, and because they carry out money uses which do have counterparts in our own society. Whether one calls them special purpose monies or highly ranked treasure items necessary to the transaction…only matters when the subject of money uses in primitive compared to Western economies is raised. Then we can show that cows and armbands of shells do perform some of the uses of dollars but in noncommercial situations…

Those aspects of primitive economy which are unrelated to market exchange can only be understood by employing socio-economic terms: ceremonial prestige and subsistence goods; reciprocity and redistribution; spheres and conversions; limited purpose money. Such terms contain a social dimension and so allow us to relate economic matters to social organization, and to express the folk-view toward the items, services, persons, and situations involved.

The economist dealing with monetary transactions in Western economy need not concern himself with personal roles and social situations because of the peculiarly impersonal nature of market exchange. The anthropologist dealing with marketless transactions cannot ignore personal roles and social situations and still make sense of what transpires.

…When we consider money in communities not integrated by market exchange-the Nuer, the Trobriands, the Tiv-it becomes essential to distinguish among the several transactional modes and among the several money uses: primitive money-stuff does not have that bundle of related uses which in our economy is conferred on dollars by market integration and by the use of dollars in both commercial and non-commercial transactions. The differences between cattle-money or shell-money and dollars are traceable to the differences in the transactional modes which call forth money uses. When [anthropologist Bronislav] Malinowski says that kula valuables are different from Western currency, he is really pointing out that reciprocal gift-giving is different from market purchase and sale…

Kula armbands, potlatch coppers, cows, pig tusks, Yap stones, etc., are variously described as money of renown, treasure items, wealth, valuables, and heirlooms. Malinowski says kula valuables are regarded like crown jewels or sports trophies in Western societies. Writers on East Africa say that cows are regarded like revered pets. Such treasures can take on special roles as non-commercial money: their acquisition and disposition are carefully structured and regarded as extremely important events; they change hands in specified ways, in transactions which have strong moral implications. Often they are used to create social relationships (marriage; entrance into secret societies), prevent a break in social relationships (bloodwealth, mortuary payments), or to keep or elevate one’s social position (potlatch). Their “money-ness” consists in their being required means of (reciprocal or redistributive) payment.

Anthropologists have developed a concept called spheres of exchange to explain this phenomenon. Exchanges can only take place between specific individuals in specific contexts. This is done to protect the underlying social relations of a particular culture.

The concept of spheres of exchange was introduced by Paul Bohannan and Laura Bohannan in analyzing their field work with the Tiv in Nigeria. The Bohannan’s discuss three types of ranked exchange objects, each restricted to its own separate exchange sphere; ideally, objects do not flow between spheres.

The subsistence sphere included food such as yams, grains, vegetables, and small livestock, as well as eating utensils, farming tools and tools for food-preparation. The second sphere of wealth included brass rods, cattle, white cloth, and slaves. A third and most prestigious sphere was marriageable female relatives.

“In calling these different areas of exchange spheres, we imply that each includes commodities that are not regarded as equivalent to those commodities in other spheres and hence in ordinary situations are not exchangeable. Each sphere is a different universe of objects. A different set of moral values and different behavior are to be found in each sphere.” As a result, it is considered immoral to use prestige objects to purchase goods from a lower sphere. Similar examples of exchange spheres have been noted by Frederik Barth among the Fur of Sudan; by Raymond Firth among the Tikopia in the south Pacific; by Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands off New Guinea amongst others.

In traditional economies, many resources are communally available and the artificial scarcity that market production requires is not present. As a result, primitive money is usually not under the control of a centralized authority which determines its quantity and value:

It has often been noted that in primitive societies there is seldom any conscious control by political authority over money objects. Such is not merely a difference between primitive monetary systems and our own, but one that reflects differences between their economic systems and ours.

In economies not integrated by market exchange, non-commercial monetary transactions are only occasional events (e.g., bloodwealth, bridewealth), and non-commercial money is not usually connected with production and daily livelihood. That the non-commercial money-stuff may be fixed in quantity for all time (Yap stones), or increase in quantity only through natural growth (cows, pig tusks) does not affect production and daily livelihood (as would be the case with us if dollars were fixed in quantity).

Market economies, on the other hand, rely upon the issuance of general-purpose money by a centralized authority. The quantity of this “official” money must be carefully managed by the authorities, since everyone is dependent upon production for the market in order to survive:

In national market economies, governments deliberately control the quantity of general purpose money because dollars (francs, sterling) carry out market sales which the populace depends on for livelihood. Roughly speaking, if the authorities allow too much money to come into use as medium of (market) purchase, the result is inflation. If the authorities allow too little money to come into use, the result is deflation and unemployment (a contraction in the rate of market purchasing below the full employment capacity rate of production). The need to deliberately vary the quantity of money is a direct result of economy-wide market integration.

This sort of money comes into being specifically to facilitate markets. As we shall see, all the evidence indicates that fully-integrated Western-style markets were brought into being by the issuance of the “money-thing” by centralized authorities, and did not spontaneously arise by higgling and haggling amongst numerous unrelated strangers. This “money-thing” differs in various cultures, but pieces of (durable) metal became the most common thing to use in the large agrarian states of Eurasia, although other things also served this purpose. As Ingham put it; “money is logically anterior to and historically prior to the market.”

Moreover, we tend to make a distinction between general-purpose “money” which is issued by a central authority (such as a mint or bank) for commercial purposes, and other forms of wealth—a distinction which is arbitrary and may not hold for other cultures.

Even in our modern industrial societies, what constitutes “money” is not so clear-cut. For example, government bonds are considered to be a store of wealth, yet they are not typically used for commercial transactions. Bonds are denominated in dollars (or whatever the bond-issuing government’s currency is), as is a checking account, yet the checking account can be drawn upon to pay for goods and services, while the bond cannot. Thus, bonds are not considered “money,” even though both bonds and checking accounts are theoretically stores of value denominated in the same unit of account.

Even in industrial economies, there are often parallel, local, community-oriented, and private currencies that exist alongside the “national” currency. One example of this is frequent-flier miles, which can be redeemed for any number of items besides flights. Another example might be gift cards. These are issued by vendors and typically used for gift exchange, such as holidays, birthdays, and wedding/baby showers. They can be exchanged for any items for sale at the vendor’s store. Are gift cards “money?” They are denominated in dollars, and can be used as a medium of exchange and a store of value, but they cannot be used in payment of taxes or to purchase goods from other retailers.

In U. S. economy, objects such as jewelry, stocks, and bonds are not thought of as money because (like cattle among the Bantu) these come into existence for reasons other than their “money-ness.” Each is capable of one or two money uses, but not the full range which distinguishes dollars, and particularly not the medium of (commercial) exchange use of dollars…Dollars serve as a store of (commercial and non-commercial) value because dollars can be held idle for future use. But this is true also for jewelry, stocks and bonds, and other marketable assets. However, in U. S. economy jewelry is not a medium of (commercial) exchange because one cannot spend it directly, and it is not a means of (commercial or non-commercial) payment because it is not acceptable in payment of debt or taxes…

In our society, all these different types of exchanges, both public and private, are mediated by the existence of integrated, universal, price-fixing markets. The money used for everyday commercial transactions is the same as that used to pay taxes, fees, and fines. The government, which issues the currency, purchases what it needs using these same markets, including labor and military support. The unit of account (dollars) in which prices are denominated bears the same name and 1:1 equivalency with the currency issued by the government (also called dollars). Debts are denominated in dollars, and dollars “can be used to settle all debts, both public and private” as it says right on the bill itself. The government issues the currency and manages its supply to prevent excessive inflation and deflation, which would adversely impact the markets. This makes our “universal” definition of money only really applicable to centralized bank money in market economies such as of our own:

In the economies for which the English monetary vocabulary was created, there is one dominant transactional mode, market exchange, to which all money uses relate…Economists do not find it necessary to distinguish among the transactional modes of market exchange, reciprocity, and redistribution, because market exchange is so overwhelmingly important. For the same reason economists do not find it necessary to describe at length the different uses of money in our own economy: with only a few exceptions they all express market exchange transactions.

U. S. dollars may be called general purpose money. They are a single monetary instrument to perform all the money uses. Moreover, the same dollars enter modes of transaction to be called redistribution and reciprocity, as enter into market exchange. These features of U.S. money are consequences of economy-wide market integration…In U. S. economy the government makes use of the market in the process of redistribution: medium of (commercial) exchange money earned as private income is used by households and firms as means of (redistributive) payment of politically incurred obligation (taxes). The government then buys on the market the services and products it requires-civil servants, guns, roads-to provide community services.

In our system, the same can be said for another mode of transaction, reciprocity, or gift-giving between kin and friends. The same money serves the different transactional modes: in purchasing a gift, the money paid is used as medium of (commercial) exchange; giving the gift is part of a reciprocal transaction (a material or service transfer induced by social obligation between the gift partners). If cash is given as a gift, it is means of (reciprocal) payment of the social obligation discharged by the gift-giving…redistribution and reciprocity make use of market exchange and make use of the same money used in market exchange. In Western economy, therefore, tax and gift transactions appear as simple variations from the private market norm-special types of expenditure or outlay-which present no theoretical difficulties.

American reliance upon market sale for livelihood and upon the price mechanism for allocating resources to production lines does the following: it makes the medium of (commercial) exchange use of money its dominant attribute, it makes other money uses serve market transactions, and it confers that peculiar bundle of traits on our general purpose money which mark off dollars from non-monetary objects. It is our market integration which makes it necessary to institutionalize all uses of money in the same money instrument.

In summary, Dalton argues that by viewing all societies through the lens of our disembedded market-centric economy, we cannot truly understand primitive money, which remains embedded in the underlying social relationships and extra-market transactions.

Two distinctions which allow us to contrast primitive and Western money are the distinctions between commercial and non-commercial uses of money, and between marketless economies, those with peripheral markets only, and market-integrated economies. In sum, money has no definable essence apart from the uses money objects serve, and these depend upon the transactional modes that characterize each economy: as tangible item as well as abstract measure, “money is what money does.”

2. A traditional example: Yap stone money

The “stone money” used on the Micronesian island of Yap is one of the most famous examples of “primitive” money. This system was described extensively by an American physician-turned-anthropologist William Henry Furness, who visited the island in 1903.

On Yap, stones called fei were used as currency. These consisted of limestone rocks of argonite quarried on the nearby island of Palau and transported to Yap by boat (Yap itself had no metal deposits). They had a hole in center to facilitate transport. These stone wheels ranged enormously in size, from small enough to carry, to several tons apiece, but in reality they were rarely moved. Neither were they exchanged hand-to-hand in spot transactions.

Rather, ownership of the stones was transferred by mutual agreement among islanders to settle outstanding debts. These were typically “exchanged” by oral agreement, usually for large-ticket purchases such as dowries. In fact, in one famous incident, a large fei stone ended up on the bottom of the ocean during transport. It was decided that, since such items were rarely moved anyway, this stone could still be used as currency, as Furness explains:

“[I]t was universally conceded…that the mere accident of its loss overboard was too trifling to mention, and that a few hundred feet of water off shore ought not to affect its marketable value … The purchasing power of that stone remains, therefore, as valid as if it were leaning visibly against the side of the owner’s house, and represents wealth as potentially as the hoarded inactive gold of a miser in the Middle Ages, or as our silver dollars stacked in the Treasury in Washington, which we never see or touch, but trade with on the strength of a printed certificate that they are there.”

In this case, primitive money was in no way used a medium of exchange. The island’s economy had few tradeable commodities anyway besides fish, coconuts and sea cucumber. Stone money certainly did not facilitate barter or trading in markets. Rather, these were records of debt and credit relationships, mainly centered around reciprocal social obligations. The fei stones were the denominations. This was the origin of money, not barter for sale, as Felix Martin notes:

The story of Yap does not just present a challenge to the conventional theory’s account of money’s origins…[i]t also raises serious doubts about its conception of what money actually is. The conventional theory holds that money is a “thing”–a commodity chosen from amongst the universe of commodities to serve as a medium of exchange–and that the essence of monetary exchanges is the swapping of goods and services for this commodity medium of exchange. But the stone money of Yap doesn’t fit this scheme.

In the first place, it is difficult to believe that anyone could have chosen “large, solid, thick stone wheels ranging in diameter from a foot to twelve feet” as a medium of exchange–since in most cases, they would be a good deal harder to move than the things being traded…it was clear that fei were not a medium of exchange in the sense of a commodity that could be exchanged for any other–since most of the time, they were not exchanged at all…in the case of the infamous shipwrecked fei, no one had ever seen the coin in question, let alone passed it around as a medium of exchange. No, there could be no doubt: the inhabitants of Yap were curiously indifferent to the fate of the fei themselves.

The essence of their monetary system was not stone coins used as a medium of exchange, but…the underlying system of credit accounts and clearing of which they helped to keep track…the inhabitants of Yap would accumulate credits and debts in the course of their trading in fish, coconuts, pigs, and sea cucumber. These would be offset against one another to settle payments. Any outstanding balances carried forward at the end of a single exchange, or a day, or a week, might, if the counterparties so wished, be settled by the exchange of currency–a fei–to the appropriate value; this being a tangible and visible record of the outstanding credit that the seller enjoyed with the rest of Yap.

Coins and currency, in other words, are useful tokens to record the underlying process of clearing. They may even be necessary in an economy larger than Yap, where coins could drop to the bottom of the sea and yet no one would think to question the wealth of their owner. But currency is not in itself money. Money is the system of credit accounts and their clearing that currency represents.

3. So, what is money really???

As we saw above, the customary tripartite definition of money simply does not work in trying to understand what money really is. It gives us little insight into economies not based around fully-integrated price-fixing markets.

A better way might be to define the essential nature of money, rather than its particular contextual uses:

In discussions about money, its three functions are often mentioned: “store of value, medium of exchange, and unit of account” — the order of these may vary. This is usually said in a peremptory tone, as being self-evident and not really worth discussing. These three functions of money constitute the tripod on which the accepted wisdom about money rests.

Let us start by noting that the usual approach is to try and define the nature of a thing, before describing its functions and features. It is therefore curious that money would be defined by its functions. The reason is that, since the beginning of modern economics, there has been great confusion about the nature of money — a confusion that has not been definitely resolved until today…

Debunking the “three functions of money” (Medium)

According to Alfred Mitchell-Innes, the nature of money is credit, or more specifically a credit/debit relationship:

“Credit is the purchasing power so often mentioned in economics works as being one of the principle attributes of money, and, as I shall try to show, credit and credit alone is money. Credit, and not gold or silver [or cattle, or pigs tusks, or iron bars or cowrie shells…] is the one property which all men seek, the acquisition of which is the aim and object of all commerce.”

By understanding that money is credit, we may get closer to understanding primitive money than by trying to use the customary three-part definition given in economics textbooks. From this essential nature, the various functions of money arise, although they may not all be subsumed in a single instrument.

For example, it’s clear in the above examples that there is a debit/credit relationship based in the reciprocal social obligations of a particular society. If I acquire a bride from you, I owe you compensation for her “loss” from your household. If I have wounded you, I owe you for the bodily injury. In peace treaties, villages are often compensated for the loss of warriors from their tribe–essentially the loss their productive capacity. The same concept is used for killings—the aggrieved family is owed for the loss of their family member and his/her future productive capacity. Pigs may be exchanged to settle this “debt” as, for example, in New Guinea. In fact, the words for “debt” and “sin” or “transgression” are the same in many languages. If I make offerings to the gods or ancestors, I owe the gods/ancestors for their continued intercession and favor. To a large extent, every one of us is in “debt” to our ancestors.

These debts may be settled immediately, or they may be deferred.

The store of value function of money comes from its ability to settle outstanding debts. I can store up value by holding onto claims on other people’s labor or assets. I can then redeem these at a later date. The value comes from what it is redeemable for (along with how reliable the claims are, which, in turn, depends on the social conditions). The total amount of money circulating in such cases has little impact, which is why it is not centrally controlled in primitive societies.

More than 97% of all money is created when banks provide loans to governments, businesses or individuals. “National” money is really bank-debt money–outstanding IOUs from banks. The money issuer is in debt to the bearer. Money is created when banks extend loans. When money is created on the bank’s liability side, a loan is facing it on the asset side. These assets (including bonds, includes bonds, which are securitized loans) are what give the bank’s money its value.

The unit of account function becomes more important when writing and numbers are introduced into a society, the society becomes larger, and markets are introduced (Types II and III). In gift economies, credits and debits are informal and are known by both parties. In larger societies, more formal means are required. Debts are denominated in a unit of account, which engenders the concept of equivalent value for unrelated items—i.e. prices. This may, in turn, develop into the idea of universal economic value. These units are usually introduced by political leaders, for example, to determine tax or restitution payments.

The unit of account may be separate from the medium of exchange, however. For example, I may owe someone fifty quatloos for a bride, but that debt may be paid with any number of items – cows, grain, beer, pigs, axes, gold, jewels, etc. Thus, in considering what “money” is, it’s important to make this distinction. For us, they are one in the same (i.e. dollars), but in the past and in other cultures, these were often different. Even in late medieval Europe prices were often listed in an “official” unit of account but paid for with a wide variety of different coins (leading to a brisk money-changing business that tracked equivalencies between the various types of circulating coins).

The medium of exchange aspect of money, so emphasized by anthropologists and economists, is relatively minor. You can have an economy—even a market-based one–without it, so long as you have a way to clear credits and debits, as the case of Yap showed.

The “medium of exchange” aspect has clouded our definitions of money going back to the very founding of economics. Adam Smith argued that all sorts of commodities functioned as mediums of exchange in primitive cultures. If you go to a museum today, for example, you’ll see all sort of things that were supposedly used as “money,” from quetzal feathers to wampum beads, to cowrie shells. This gave rise to the idea that money was always some sort of “thing” that was used as an intermediate good for people to trade for the things they really did want.

Smith used the example of cod in Newfoundland. In his view, cod was a convenient “medium of exchange” used because there was no metal available. People would just swap cod, even if they didn’t want it, knowing that cod could be exchanged for whatever they did want. Smith argues that some commodity would always be chosen based on the prevailing local conditions: dried cod in Newfoundland, tobacco in Virginia, sugar in the West Indies, cacao shells and quetzal feathers in Mesoamerica, wampum beads in North America, and even iron nails in Scotland.

The problem is, it’s very difficult to get from this type of barter trading to the creation of “money.” If I hold to on to various items not because I want them, but because others do, this is not a sufficient condition for one single thing to become institutionalized as money. People do this all the time with all sorts of different items in traditional societies. However, there is no evidence that the kind of universal, all-purpose “money” that we use ever arose out of this sort of behavior. Exchanges were likely done “open-handedly” or through credits, just like at bars today: “I owe you one.”

It turns out that the “father of economics” had gotten it wrong. Almost immediately, other economics writers noticed problems with this story. In the cases Smith cited, trade was actually accounted for in some sort of unit of account. Outstanding balances were settled in commodities, but that did not make such commodities into “money”:

In every case, these were examples of trade that were accounted for in pounds, shillings, and pence, just as it was in modern England. Sellers would accumulate credit on their books, and buyers debts, all denominated in monetary units. The fact that any net balances that remained between them might be discharged by payment of some commodity or other to the value of the debt did not mean that the commodity was ‘money.’ To focus on the commodity payment rather than the system of credit and clearing behind it was to get things completely the wrong way round. And to take the view that it was the commodity itself that was money, as Smith did, might start out seeming logical, but would end in nonsense. As Alfred Mitchel Innes…summed up the problem with Smith’s report of cod-money:

“A moment’s reflection shows that a staple commodity could not be used as money, because ex hypothesi the medium of exchange is equally receivable by all members of the community. Thus, if the fishers paid for their supplies in cod, the traders would equally have to pay for their cod in cod, an obvious absurdity.”

Cowrie shells, for example, can really be seen as debt markers (i.e. tokens). They simply allow the easy quantification and tracking of outstanding debt. Money is just an IOU, evidence that the issuer is in debt to the bearer. Even in spot transactions in markets, we can see that money is simply debt.

If I buy a chicken from a market vendor for 5 quatloos, the seller functionally “gives” me a chicken and I’m in debt for 5 seconds until I hand over the “money-thing,” which immediately extinguishes that debt. Or if I happen to hand over the “money-thing” first, they are in debt to me by 1 chicken until they settle that debt moments later by handing the chicken over to me. The “money-thing” can be anything–what matters is the debt. That debt may be settled on the spot or later. The price unit and the “money-thing” may be equivalent, or they may be different.

In many cases, the real distinction between “primitive” money and “true” money is that true money is transferable credit. This allows debts to circulate in the economy as third-party IOUs. This allows business to be transacted among unrelated people. What matters is the trustworthiness of the issuer of IOU’s. As Felix Martin writes:

Money is not a commodity medium of exchange, but a social technology composed of three fundamental elements:

– The first is an abstract unit of value in which money is denominated.

– The second is a system of accounts, which keeps track of the individuals’ or the institutions’ credit or debt balances as they engage in trade with one another.

– The third is the possibility that the original creditor in a relationship can transfer their debtor’s obligation to a third party in settlement of some unrelated debts.

This third element is vital. Whilst all money is credit, not all credit is money: and it is the possibility of transfer that makes the difference. An IOU which remains for ever a contract between just two parties is nothing more than a loan. It is credit, but it is not money. It is when that IOU can be passed on to a third party-when it is able to be “negotiated” or “endorsed, comes to life and starts to serve as money. Money, in other words, is not just credit-but transferable credit. As the nineteenth-century economist and lawyer Henry Dunning Macleod put it:

“These simple considerations at once shew the fundamental nature of a Currency. It is quite clear that its primary use is to measure and record debts, and to facilitate their transfer from one person to another; and whatever means be adopted for this purpose, whether it be gold, silver, paper, or anything else, is a currency. We may therefore lay down our fundamental Conception that Currency and Transferable Debt are convertible terms; whatever represents transferable debt of any sort is Currency; and whatever material the Currency may consist of, it represents Transferable Debt, and nothing else.”

As we shall see, this innovation of the transferability of debts was a critical development in the history of money. It is this, rather than the graduation from a mythical barter economy, which has historically revolutionised societies and economies. In fact, it is barely an exaggeration-if we make allowance for the unmistakable overtone of Victorian melodrama-to say, as Macleod did:

“If we were asked-Who made the discovery which has most deeply affected the fortunes of the human race?’ We think, after full consideration, we might safely answer-The man who first discovered that a Debt is a Saleable Commodity.”

So, then, the difference between “primitive” money and “real” money might be stated as the transferability of debt, or “debt as a saleable commodity”. Primitive money is simply whatever is used for interpersonal transactions based on the prevailing social conditions. These transactions can (and usually do) take place outside of markets, and profit is seldom involved.

But true “money” as we know it emerges once the “money-stuff” becomes transferable credit between various third parties, denominated in some sort of abstract, commonly agreed-upon unit of account. These credits and debts can then circulate, facilitating economic coordination between unrelated people. Typically debts owed to some sort of powerful political entity—whether it be chief, king, temple, palace, emperor, sovereign, or democratic government, are what typically circulate as money universally throughout an economy.

…even though [money] is nothing but credit, cannot just be created at will by anyone. For sellers to accept buyers’ IOUs in payment, they must be convinced of two things. They must have reason to believe that the debtor whose obligation they are about to accept will, if it comes to it, be able to satisfy their claim: they must believe, in other words, that the money’s issuer is creditworthy. This much would be enough to sustain the existence of bilateral credit.

The test for money is more stringent. For credit to become money, sellers must also trust that third parties will be willing to accept the debtor’s IOU in payment as well. They must believe that it is, and will remain indefinitely, transferable-that the market for this money is liquid. Depending on how powerful are the reasons to believe these two things, it will be easier or harder for an issuer’s IOUs to circulate as money. It is because of this third critical element of transferability that money issued by governments, or by the banks which governments endorse and backstop, is thought to be special…

While it may seem like a discussion of “primitive” money is merely of academic interest to anthropologists, it is, in fact, critical to understanding the history and the essential nature of money–“whence it came, where it went,” as John Kenneth Galbraith put it.

How did “primitive” money become modern? We’ll start telling that story next time.

A Skeleton Key to the Alt Left

Last time we looked at the differences between the “Left” as manifested in the mainstream political discourse and those of a number of authors, blogger and thinkers that I’ve (somewhat arbitrarily) lumped under the umbrella of the Alt-Left. We listed a lot of their views, but what lies at the heart of the Alt-Left’s critique?

I think an answer to that question might be illuminated by this article: Kanth: A 400-Year Program of Modernist Thinking is Exploding (Institute for New Economic Thinking)

The article describes the ideas of a thinker named Rajani Kanth. Like some on the Alt-Right, Kanth is highly critical of many of the ideas which came out of the European Enlightenment. Kanth’s critique, thought, centers around what he calls Eurocentric Modernism, which he feels had come to define the current world order, pushing out any alternatives:

We’re taught to think of the Enlightenment as the blessed end to the Dark Ages, a splendid blossoming of human reason. But what if instead of bringing us to a better world, some of this period’s key ideas ended up producing something even darker?

In [author Rajani Kanth’s] view, what’s throwing most of us off kilter…was…a set of assumptions, a particular way of looking at the world that pushed out previous modes of existence, many quite ancient and time-tested, and eventually rose to dominate the world in its Anglo-American form…Kanth argues that this framework, which he calls Eurocentric modernism, is collapsing….

Many of the authors previously mentioned are critical of Eurocentric Modernism, even if they are not familiar with that concept. What is Eurocentric Modernism?

The Eurocentric modernist program, according to Kanth, has four planks: a blind faith in science; a self-serving belief in progress; rampant materialism; and a penchant for using state violence to achieve its ends. In a nutshell, it’s a habit of placing individual self-interest above the welfare of community and society.

Eurocentric Modernism is also intrinsically tied up with the concept of the One Big Global Market put into place by European economic liberals using strong centralized states and top-down state violence. The Market itself is the greatest “social engineering” project ever conceived, and is currently showing signs of fraying around the edges (or even collapsing outright):

Eurocentric modernism…delivered a society which is essentially asocial — one in which everybody sees everybody else as a means to their own private ends…[and] consigned us to an endless and exhausting Hobbesian competition. For every expansion of the market, we found our social space shrunk and our natural environment spoiled. For every benefit we received, there came a new way to pit us against each other…[P]eople are not at all like Adam Smith’s homo economicus, a narrowly self-interested agent trucking and bartering through life. Smith…turned the human race — a species capable of wondrous caring, creativity, and conviviality — into a nasty horde of instinctive materialists: a society of hustlers.

In fact, economics has been called the “crown jewel” of the Eurocentric Modernist project. Rather than any sort of actual “science,” it is a code of ethics and philosophical justification for the world as it is under Eurocentric Modernism. It prevents any challenge to it, depicting the current order as “scientific,” “natural” and “inevitable.” (i.e. “There is no alternative”). According to its adherents, any criticism of it is contrary to “human nature.” Every day, millions of people in every corner of the globe are indoctrinated in its tenets, like a modern-day religion. You can’t understand the political regime of Eurocentric Modernism without its philosophical handmaiden—Economics.

Modern orthodox economists frequently theorize and propose their models wrapped in algebraic expressions and econometrics symbols that make their theories incomprehensible to anyone without a significant training in mathematics. These complicated mathematical models rely on sets of assumptions about human behavior, institutional frameworks, and the way society works as whole; i.e. theoretical underpinnings developed through history. Yet, more frequently than not, their assumptions go to such great lengths that the models turn out utterly detached from reality.

This approach was promoted during the 1870s, in an effort to emulate the success of the natural sciences in explaining the world around us, and so transform Political Economy into the “exact” science of Economics. The new discipline, born with a scientific aura, would provide a legitimate doctrine to rationalize the existing system and state of affairs as universal, natural, and harmonious.

It is understandable that economists wanted their field to be more like the natural sciences. At the time, great advances in physics, biology, chemistry, and astronomy had unraveled many mysteries of the universe. Those discoveries had yielded rapid development around the world. The Second Industrial Revolution was well underway, causing a transition from rudimentary techniques of production to the extensive uses of machines. Physics and mathematics were validated to a great extent with the construction of large bridges, transcontinental railroads, and the telephone. There exists extensive evidence to establish that this success of the natural sciences and the scientific method had a big influence on the mathematization of what had been the field of Political Economy. Early neoclassical theorists misappropriated the mathematical formalism of physics, boldly copied their models, and mostly admitted so. Particularly guilty of this method were W.S. Jevons and Léon Walras; credited with having arrived at the principle of marginal utility independently…

The Borrowed Science of Neoclassical Economics (The Minskys)

Not only did it borrow the language of science, at around the same time it eliminated all class/institutional power relations from consideration, instead depicting us all as “equals” making mutually beneficial voluntary exchanges.

…Power was originally recognised as important by the Classical economists like Adam Smith. However this changed with the rise of socialism. Wealthy industrialists and rulers feared this threat and sought to find an economic theory that would debunk socialism and protect themselves. It was for this reason that economics began to downplay issues like inequality and poverty. It also de-emphasised production and therefore any resulting questions about social relations. Instead economics switched to discussing marginal utility of hypothetical individuals where none had power over the other. There was no boss or servant, but rather groups of individuals voluntarily interacting in mutually beneficial arrangements.

Crucially, economics became depersonalised and it was no longer possible to make value judgements. A dollar spent by a rich person on a loaf of bread was the same as a dollar spent by a poor person on the same loaf. It was no longer argued that one person may need the dollar more or that the starving may need the loaf more than the fat. Economics abandoned the idea that people have needs and assumed we only have desires. This change in focus did not happen by chance or due to superior argument but due to the politics of the time…

Economists and the Powerful (Whistling in the Wind)

Rather than the pseudoscience of Economics, Kanth suggests we take our social inspiration from a different source—human anthropology:

Utopian dreamers have often longed for a more hospitable way of living. But Kanth believes that when they look to politics, economics or philosophy for answers, they are missing the best inspiration: human anthropology…without which our forays into economics, psychology, sociology, and pretty much everything are hopelessly skewed…the Eurocentric modernist tradition, influenced by the Judeo-Christian idea that we are distinct from the world of nature, seeks to separate us from the animal world. We are supposed to be above it, immortal, transcending our bodies and the Earth…

As Kanth sees it, most of our utopian visions carry on the errors and limitations born of a misguided view of human nature. That’s why communism, as it was practiced in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, projected a materialist perspective on progress while ignoring the natural human instinct for autonomy— the ability to decide for ourselves where to go and what to say and create. On flip side, capitalism runs against our instinct to trust and take care of each other.

[D]idn’t Eurocentric modernism…give us our great democratic ideals of equality and liberty to elevate and protect us?…Kanth…notes that when we replace the vital ties of kinship and community with abstract contractual relations, or when we find that the only sanctioned paths in life are that of consumer or producer, we become alienated and depressed in spirit. Abstract rights like liberty and equality turn out to be rather cold comfort. These ideas, however lofty, may not get at the most basic human wants and needs.

The key is not to project ourselves into the future, but to learn from the practical, beneficial ways humans have lived in the past and still do, in some cases, in the present…

Now let’s introduce a related concept here called High Modernism. This concept was developed by James Scott in his book Seeing Like A State. It has some similarities and overlaps with Eurocentric Modernism, but is distinct from it.

Seeing Like a State (The Easiest Person to Fool)

Book Review: Seeing Like A State (Slate Star Codex)

High Modernism is associated with the project of state-building. To this end, it is intrinsically tied up with many elements of the mainstream Left/Right view–democracy, meritocracy, top-down technocratic management, rationalism, materialism, educational attainment, laissez-faire capitalist markets, centralized power, standardization, multiculturalism and globalism.

High Modernism is the attempt to standardize and regularize the world so as to make it legible for rational management and top-down planning by centralized bureaucracies. It places a premium on maximizing “efficiency.” The ultimate purpose is taxation–the funneling of resources from a periphery to a core. In Scott’s view, this process defines the creation of what we normally term “the State.” However, this process often has unforeseen consequences.

[James] Scott defines [High Modernism] as[:]

“A strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.”

…which is just a bit academic-ese for me. An extensional definition might work better: standardization, Henry Ford, the factory as metaphor for the best way to run everything, conquest of nature, New Soviet Man, people with college degrees knowing better than you, wiping away the foolish irrational traditions of the past, Brave New World, everyone living in dormitories and eating exactly 2000 calories of Standardized Food Product (TM) per day, anything that is For Your Own Good, gleaming modernist skyscrapers, The X Of The Future, complaints that the unenlightened masses are resisting The X Of The Future, demands that if the unenlightened masses reject The X Of The Future they must be re-educated For Their Own Good, and (of course) evenly-spaced rectangular grids (maybe the best definition would be “everything G. K. Chesterton didn’t like.”).

Clearly both the Mainstream Left and Right are adherents of High Modernism. But more importantly, even the major so-called “Leftist” or “collectivist” movements of the Twentieth Century, such as Soviet Communism, were just as wedded to ideas of “progress” and High Modernism as was Western “libertarian” capitalism. The distinction between Left and Right breaks down here.

Many adherents of Communism were moved by Marx’s descriptions of Capitalism’s flaws and shortcomings, but they attempted to construct a “new and improved” top-down hierarchical system in its place which was just as much based on a flawed conception of human nature (the Soviet “new man;” a “classless society”). To keep this utopian project going also required state violence and oppression. Yet we forget that our Capitalist Systems rely just as much on state violence and social control. Note that the “free” societies of the West have now become just as much carceral/surveillance states as the fallen regimes of Eastern Europe, if not more so. As John Gray commented, “The Cold War was a family quarrel among Western ideologies. “

Both ostensibly “Left” and “Right” movements were obsessed with an idea of “progress” that left millions of dead bodies in its wake. As I’ve written before, we are taught to believe that One Big Capitalist Market came about organically through the “scaling up” of primordial farmer’s markets due to our “natural” instincts to “truck barter and exchange.” Yet this is horribly wrong. It’s another part of economics indoctrination.

As Karl Polanyi demonstrated, the One Big Global Market was an artificially constructed by aggressive top-down state violence. The Enclosure Movement, the Highland Clearances, the Poor Laws, Speenhamland, Work Houses, Debtor’s Prisons, the Luddite Revolts, the Corn Laws, Game Laws, Colonialism, the Gold Standard, state-granted corporate charters (e.g. the East India Companies), national banks (the Bank of England), and many other historical changes brought it about.

Millions of people perished in the construction of the Market, from Native Americans, to English peasants, to Irish subsistence farmers, to Indian and African villagers (to the unemployed coal miners overdosing in rural Appalachia today). Many institutions we take for granted in the modern world are band-aids put into place as a result of popular demands for some sort of protection from the destructiveness of this project (e.g. popular democracy, the Welfare State, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, environmental protections, etc.). These people were victims of Modernism just as much as the victims of the Holdomor, yet they have been erased from history. The top-down creation of the Market by central governments is what allowed Capitalism to form in Northern Europe and to project itself around the world.

It may be hard to believe given how much we’ve become inured to it, but the social dysfunction we take for granted today, with its rampant homelessness, mental illness, unemployment, abused children and elderly, beggars on the street, and so forth, would have been unthinkable to traditional societies. What was once shocking has become normal.

Scott describes in detail the processes by which local knowledge is supplanted by regularized systems. Some examples he gives are: the replacement of small-plot peasant agriculture with large-scale, “efficient” mechanized farms of monocrops, assigning people permanent last names (and later ID numbers), bulldozing neighborhoods of crooked streets and replacing them with planned, rectangular grids of wide-open streets, replacing vernacular architecture with cookie-cutter high-rise housing projects, the supplanting of regional dialects with a single “national” language, universal childhood education, and the standardization of money, weights and measures. For example:

…Enlightenment rationalists noticed that peasants [in 18th century Prussia] were just cutting down whatever trees happened to grow in the forests, like a chump. They came up with a better idea: clear all the forests and replace them by planting identical copies of Norway spruce (the highest-lumber-yield-per-unit-time tree) in an evenly-spaced rectangular grid. Then you could just walk in with an axe one day and chop down like a zillion trees an hour and have more timber than you could possibly ever want.

This went poorly. The impoverished ecosystem couldn’t support the game animals and medicinal herbs that sustained the surrounding peasant villages, and they suffered an economic collapse. The endless rows of identical trees were a perfect breeding ground for plant diseases and forest fires. And the complex ecological processes that sustained the soil stopped working, so after a generation the Norway spruces grew stunted and malnourished. Yet for some reason, everyone involved got promoted, and “scientific forestry” spread across Europe and the world.

And this pattern repeats with suspicious regularity across history, not just in biological systems but also in social ones…

With the advent of globalism, the High Modernist concept now has the entire world in its grip, and is driving us off a cliff. From the countless environmental catastrophes, to the breakdown of entire nations like Syria and Afghanistan, to the ultimate High Modernist project of China, it seems like this project has run its course and is leaving us with a destabilized climate and social situation.

Unemployment, violent crime, war, violence, depression, obesity, environmental catastrophe, social chaos, extreme inequality, mass incarceration–all are getting worse, and our leaders have no answers besides enriching themselves! No wonder we’re desperately searching for alternatives.

I see a lot of the criticism of the Alt-left stemming from a critical view of both Eurocentric modernism and High Modernism. The similarities between them are that both are fundamentally a Procrustean bed for humans, as opposed to the anthropology-centered approach advocated by Kanth.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that we, the human beings inhabiting this planet, try to solve problems of great significance and complexity with the…Procrustean method. Instead of making the bed fit the travelers, we stretch and cut off limbs to do the inverse.

One example Taleb points out are schoolchildren who we pump full of medication so that they adapt to the unbelievably flawed education system, instead of altering the curriculum to suit the children. It couldn’t be that the 10-year-old boy is not meant to sit in the same chair inside the dull classroom for hours on end every day, and when he starts to fidget he’s diagnosed with ADHD, considered hyperactive and has a learning disability, which of course needs to be corrected by tinkering with his brain chemistry.

Situations like this are everywhere around us and they often bear grave consequences…[The Bed of Procrustes] represents Taleb’s view of modern civilization’s hubristic side effects:

  • Modifying humans to satisfy technology
  • Blaming reality for not fitting economic models
  • Inventing diseases to sell drugs
  • Defining intelligence as what can be tested in a classroom
  • Convincing people that employment is not slavery

Philosopher John Gray writes in Straw Dogs:

The chief effect of the Industrial Revolution was to engender the working class. It did this not so much by forcing a shift from the country to towns as by enabling a massive growth in population. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new phase of the Industrial Revolution is under way that promises to make much of that population superfluous.

Today the Industrial Revolution that began in the towns of northern England has become worldwide. The result is the global expansion in population we are presently witnessing. At the same time, new technologies are steadily stripping away the functions of the labour force that the Industrial Revolution has created.

An economy whose core tasks are done by machines will value human labour only in so far as it cannot be replaced. [Hans] Moravec writes: ‘Many trends in industrialized societies lead to a future where humans are supported by machines, as our ancestors were by wildlife.’ That, according to Jeremy Rifkin, does not mean mass unemployment. Rather, we are approaching a time when, in Moravec’s words, ‘almost all humans work to amuse other humans’.

In rich countries, that time has already arrived. The old industries have been exported to the developing world. At home, new occupations have evolved, replacing those of the industrial era. Many of them satisfy needs that in the past were repressed or disguised. A thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions and spiritual boutiques has sprung up. Beyond that, there is an enormous grey economy of illegal industries supplying drugs and sex. The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – though it is busier than ever before secretly suspects that it is useless.

Industrialisation created the working class. Now it has made the working class obsolete. Unless it is cut short by ecological collapse, it will eventually do the same to nearly everyone. ..Bourgeois life was based on the institution of the career – a lifelong pathway through working life. Today professions and occupations are disappearing. Soon they will be as remote and archaic as the ranks and estates of medieval times.

Our only real religion is a shallow faith in the future; and yet we have no idea what the future will bring. None but the incorrigibly feckless any longer believe in taking the long view. Saving is gambling, careers and pensions are high-level punts. The few who are seriously rich hedge their bets. The proles – the rest of us – live from day to day.

In Europe and Japan, bourgeois life lingers on. In Britain and America it has become the stuff of theme parks. The middle class is a luxury capitalism can no longer afford.

What is Kanth’s alternative?

Kanth thinks what we’d much prefer is to live in what he calls a “social economy of affections,” or, put more simply, a moral economy. He points out that the simple societies Europeans were so moved by when they first began to study them, conjuring images of the “noble savage,” tended toward cooperation, not competition. They emphasized feeling and mutual affection. Karl Marx got his idea of communism from looking at the early anthropological studies of simple societies, where he was inspired by the way humans tended to relate to each other.

“Today we are taught to believe that society doesn’t owe us a living,” says Kanth. “Well, in simple societies they felt the exact opposite. Everybody owed everybody else. There were mutual ties. People didn’t rely on a social contract that you can break. Instead, they had a social compact. You can’t break it. You’re born with it, and you’re delighted to be part of it because it nurtures you. That’s very different from a Hobbesian notion that we’re all out to zap each other.”

Note that this is very different from the Alt-Right, who celebrate capitalist Markets as Social Darwinist winnowing mechanisms eliminating the “weak” and “unfit” and argue that one’s intrinsic value as human being is solely a function of one’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and money-earning power. They celebrate a society of constant, unremitting conflict, where all one is entitled to is what he or she can claw free from the impersonal market, nothing more and nothing less.

The Alt-Right is, as one commenter observed, obsessed with the idea of inequality–between people, nations, and various “races.” They believe that the strong are entitled to rule, and that the weak must yield. They believe in a society where the “best” climb to the top, and anything that retards this, like “democracy” or “collectivism” is bad and leads to dysgenics or some sort of ill-defined cultural rot. The Alt-Right wants an “every man for himself” predatory world of relentless individualism, where society owes you nothing and you owe nothing to society, and the strong are free to prey upon the weak at every turn (“There is no such thing as society…there are individuals, and there are families…”).

In my view, one of the major mistakes of the Alt-Right is their refusal to accept that modern globalized libertarian capitalism is a project of the High Modernism of the Enlightenment, rather than a permanent feature of the human condition stemming from our “natural instincts” to “exchange value.” Note that “exchanging value” is not the same thing as maximizing profits. Most ancient thinkers saw profiting at the expense of others as unnatural, since by definition it implies an unequal exchange of value (which it must be). Furthermore, they made no distinction between “the economy” and the rest of society. This was a creation of economic liberals of eighteenth century Britain.

While there’s always been an elite with a lust for power, the desire to hoard and accumulate possessions was not a major factor until fairly recently. Neither was acquiring large amounts of money. The Alt-Right accepts the economics creed as gospel—that markets are “natural”, that we are instinctively inclined to maximize our own self-interest, and that anything that restricts this behavior is an affront to “freedom.” However, most societies before the present day recognized that runaway greed and self-interest would tear society apart and lead to collapse, not to “higher” states of civilization. They put certain limits on self-seeking behavior. It was the centuries-long process of breaking down communitarian values and privatizing the commons that led to market-based capitalism (along with mechanization). Capitalism is simply impossible without strong centralized states (meaning that “anarcho-capitalism” is an oxymoron).

The Alt-Right looks to the Victorian Era (and perhaps the Roman Empire) as their ideal society. Men rule, and women’s sexual behavior is extremely regulated. Constraints on social behavior are strictly enforced by restrictive social norms. Political control is restricted to the “best” people (the wealthy and property-holders) rather than the “rabble.” Monarchy is still a valid system of government, and power is often hereditary. The gap between rich and poor is extreme, and there is no “welfare state” to support the useless eaters. In this Dickensian economy, people are forced to struggle just to survive, and this breeds “achievement culture.” The winners (usually white males) are rewarded with higher reproductive success, driving Darwinian evolution to “superior” lifeforms. Without being able to satisfy their carnal urges, people instead channel their efforts into work and duty to empire. Europe is not on its back foot, but ruling over much of the globe (including Africans and Muslims) with no apologies, as it should be. The Market dominates the globe without all the pesky rules and regulations imposed by nanny states to protect the weak and unfit. Large-scale heroic engineering projects are launched on a weekly basis, from bridges to canals to railroads. Anything that departs from this ideal society is “decline”–an obsession with the alt-right.

Personally, I don’t think that most people want to live this way.

We may be able to perform dazzling technical feats, like putting a colony on Mars, but we will pay for it by working even harder and longer hours so that a few may get the benefit. A whole lot of lost time and suffering, and for what? Kanth points out that the Bushmen do not have a Mars rocket, but they do have a two-and-a-half-day workweek — something that most modern humans can only dream of. What’s more significant to the lives of most of us?

“We have become unhinged from our own human nature as heat-seeking mammals,” says Kanth. “What we really crave is warmth, security, and care — the kinds of things we get at home and in close social units.” Our greatest human need, he says, is something far more humble than launching rockets: we want to huddle.

The Alt-Left, from what I can tell, is much more focused on creating a well-functioning society where the rapacity of the elites is held in check. They believe in communitarian values–things like common ownership and worker self-determination. To this end, they oppose authoritarianism, institutionalized hierarchy, slavery, gender inequality, racism, bigotry, and conflict. They advocate that the needs of business and the market be subordinated to the needs of a healthy society, rather than society arranging itself according to the requirements of the global marketplace. They advocate environmental stewardship and living in harmony with the natural world (e.g. Permaculture in place of the industrial food system).

If there’s once commonality I see in many of the Alt-Left’s arguments, it is the replacement of large-scale, depersonalized, centralized, high-tech, authoritarian systems with communal, locally-based, more informal ones based in face-to-face relationships and intrinsic social ties such as family, friendship and community. This does not advocate isolationism; only that one’s local community is intact and more important than abstract notions of globalism. It is a vision of a convivial society. There is often more than a hint of nostalgia in their writings.

Thus, for example, James Howard Kunstler argues that we need to downsize and downscale, abandon suburban sprawl, move back to small and medium-sized towns, grow our own food in local farms and gardens, get the old train system up and running again (NOT build new high-speed rail) and reactivate downtown main streets in place of Wal mart. He sees much ill in the alienating suburban infrastructure America has built around automobiles (“Happy Motoring”) and big-box consumerism.

His fictional World Made by Hand series of books depicts a future America where we live essentially like modern-day Amish–with pre-Civil war technology in small towns connected by horses, canals and railroads, growing food locally and living in line with the seasons. Computer scientists, business executives and telemarketers have been replaced by dirt farmers, carpenters and blacksmiths. But the key is, he depicts this way of life, harsh as it is–as far more meaningful and emotionally satisfying than life in modern-day America, which is increasingly resembling the hellish dystopias envisioned by cyberpunk authors in the 1980’s.

When I go around the country, there’s a great clamor for ‘solutions.’ Whenever I hear that world solutions, it’s always invariably in connection with the wish to keep all our stuff running. The amount of delusional thinking that’s being generated by this set of very vexing problems is staggering. There’s understandably a wish to keep all the stuff running that we’ve got up running. That’s the psychology of previous investment. The only conversation they want to have at the Aspen Environmental Institute is all the nifty new ways we’re going to run our cars.

The most impressive part of the situation at the moment is our failure to construct a coherent consensus about what’s happening to us, and what we’re going to do about it…I think the young people especially are going to have to discover that hope is not something that is given to them by a politician or a corporation or by anybody else. Hope is something that you generate inside yourself by demonstrating to yourself that you’re competent–that you understand the signals that are coming to you from the universe…Life is tragic, and history doesn’t care if we pound our civilization down a rathole…

John Michael Greer advises us to “collapse now and avoid the rush.” He argues that we will increasingly be unable to sustain our extravagant ways of life due to decreasing net energy available to industrial civilization. This means that more and more people will inevitably be thrown into what is considered poverty by modern American standards, and we had best learn to live with it. He looks to the past to find inspiration about different and less resource-intense ways to live. He is highly skeptical of new technology, seeing them as “solutions in search of problems.”

His recent fiction work imagines a world where modern cutting-edge high technology has been replaced with older, simpler, more resilient technologies (Retropia). The imaginary country has “fallen back” to earlier levels of development, but these are far more stable and politically functional that the world depicted “outside” where the status-quo is failing and a slavish devotion to technology and “innovation” is increasingly becoming a burden for most people rather than a blessing.

First, industrial society was only possible because our species briefly had access to an immense supply of cheap, highly concentrated fuel with a very high net energy—that is, the amount of energy needed to extract the fuel was only a very small fraction of the energy the fuel itself provided…Second, while it’s easy to suggest that we can simply replace fossil fuels with some other energy source and keep industrial civilization running along its present course, putting that comfortable notion into practice has turned out to be effectively impossible. No other energy source available to our species combines the high net energy, high concentration, and great abundance that a replacement for fossil fuel would need…Third, these problems leave only one viable alternative, which is to decrease our energy use, per capita and absolutely, to get our energy needs down to levels that could be maintained over the long term on renewable sources. The first steps in this process were begun in the 1970s, with good results, and might have made it possible to descend from the extravagant heights of industrialism in a gradual way, keeping a great many of the benefits of the industrial age intact as a gift for the future. Politics closed off that option in the decade that followed, however, and the world’s industrial nations went hurtling down a different path, burning through the earth’s remaining fossil fuel reserves at an accelerating pace and trusting that economic abstractions such as the free market would suspend the laws of physics and geology for their benefit…

Fourth, while it’s fashionable these days to imagine that this process will take the form of a sudden cataclysm that will obliterate today’s world overnight, all the testimony of history and a great many lines of evidence from other sources suggests that this is the least likely outcome of our predicament. Across a wide range of geographical scales and technological levels, civilizations take an average of one to three centuries to complete the process of decline and fall, and there is no valid reason to assume that ours will be any exception…Fifth, individuals, families, and communities faced with this predicament still have choices left. The most important of those choices parallels the one faced, or more precisely not faced, at the end of the 1970s: to make the descent in a controlled way, beginning now, or to cling to their current lifestyles until the system that currently supports those lifestyles falls away from beneath their feet…

Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush (Archdruid Report)

Dmitry Orlov advises us to disengage from the money economy and formal work arrangements, and instead develop informal, face-to-face relationships based on shared commonalities. He advises “investing” in practical skills and land rather than opaque financial instruments. He himself lives a peripatetic life based on sailing.

His book “Communities that Abide” looks at what are considered minority “out-group” cultures that nonetheless have managed to sustain themselves even as big, top-down hierarchical political systems have collapsed around them (like the Soviet Union, the original focus of his writings). These groups all have durable, time-tested ways of living that have largely resisted Scott’s “High Modernism” and retained earlier lifeways, for example, the Roma (Gypsies), The Old Order Mennonites (Amish), the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan, and others. His latest book, “Shrinking the Technosphere” describes how our dependence on centralized high technology is increasingly antagonistic to genuine freedom and autonomy, and describes ways to minimize dependence on such technologies in our daily lives.

He cynically believes that large-scale institutions, including state, national, and local governments, are irreformable, and that any attempts to “fix” them are doomed to fail. Politics is nothing more than show business. Instead, he argues, we should actively disengage from them to the greatest extent possible, refuse to participate, and tend to our own business by forming ways to attend to our daily needs which do not rely on the existence of any large-scale institutions, whether public or private.

I would argue that all of the above authors are all “Small-C” conservatives, in the true sense of the word. They are highly suspicious of anarchic capitalist markets and banks and skeptical of all the new technology being foisted upon us. They see “innovation” as more often than not a dirty word. They all advocate less dependence on top-down hierarchical systems, an emphasis on local community, self-reliance for one’s daily needs, and a slower/simpler way of living.

According to Ran Prieur:

If I defined an alt-left, it would explicitly take no position on race, or on racially charged subjects like immigration. The core of my alt-left definition would be economics. Libertarians want a “level playing field” but I want a playing field slanted so hard that trying to turn a lot of money into more money would be like climbing a mountain, and being content with just enough money for basic dignity and comfort would be like coasting downhill on a bicycle.

Rather than the Victorian Era, the Alt-Left looks back much farther—to the hunter-gatherer past—in search of answers. It was a world of equality, sexual openness, freedom, spontaneity, abundance, and leisure. They are likely to see our decline as starting with the transition to sedentary agriculture where elites gained control of the political system, women’s reproductive behavior began to be strictly regulated, war became endemic, slavery was established, yawning gaps between rich and poor emerged, we destroyed our natural habitats, population exploded, people got sicker had to work far longer and harder to support the ruling class.

Or, perhaps they might look for inspiration to the European High Middle Ages, with the dissolution of the centralized Roman State and the re-emphasis on small-scale local economies. While the mainstream Left sees this as a time of backwardness caused by adherence to religion, the Alt-Left sees much to admire in societies not based on acquisition and overproduction, but instead focused on humanism and spiritual values (even if the behavior of the Catholic Church was less then admirable):

The Alt-Left has many antecedents, what Morris Berman calls the “alternative tradition.” This ranges from the old-school communist/anarchist thinkers such as Marx, Proudhon, Kropotkin, Owen, and others, to the American Transcendentalists like Thoreau, Whitman and Emerson, to voices from the 1960’s–Lewis Mumford, E.F. Schumacher, Richard Theobald, Kenneth Boulding, Jane Jacobs, Barry Commoner, and others. These views have always been suppressed by the dominant culture, which is dedicated to the religion of progress.

However, the religion of progress seems to be breaking down. It’s telling that many of the above writers are put in the “collapse” camp. Perhaps when Eurocentric Modernism has run its course and consigned to the dustbin of history, we can rebuild something more healthy and durable. Assuming there are any of us left, that is.

Kanth…senses that a global financial crisis, or some other equivalent catastrophe, like war or natural disaster, may soon produce painful and seismic economic and political disruptions. Perhaps only then will human nature reassert itself as we come to rediscover the crucial nexus of reciprocities that is our real heritage. That’s what will enable us to survive.

Hopefully it won’t come to that, but right now, we can learn to “step out and breathe again,” says Kanth. We can “reclaim our natural social heritage, which is our instincts for care, consideration, and conviviality.” Even in large cities, he observes, we naturally tend to function within small groups of reference even though we are forced into larger entities in the workplace and other arenas. There, we can build and enrich our social ties, and seek to act according to our moral instincts. We can also resist and defy the institutions that deny our real humanity. Rather than violence or revolution, we can engage in “evasion and disobedience and exile.”

We had better get to it, he warns. To put it bluntly, Eurocentric modernism is not compatible with human civilization. One of them has got to go.

What Is the Alt-Left?

First, let’s state the obvious: people are turning to alternative narratives, whether Alt-Right or Alt-Left, because the mainstream narrative is increasingly falling apart. There is a very narrow range of “acceptable” opinions anymore, which is why so many things are increasingly falling under the “Alt” label.

There is a pervasive sense out there that society is spiraling out of control, and that our leaders have no answers. Their “solutions” seem useless and ineffectual; their proscriptions seem counterproductive; and their “leadership” seems craven and self-serving.

It seems like elites and the media live in a different world entirely from the rest of us, whether it’s the enclaves of Manhattan, Silicon Valley, the City of London, “Versailles on the Potomac,” or the “Acela Corridor.” They seem to have no clue as to what 90+ percent of us are experiencing “out here” in the rapidly decaying societies of America and Western Europe.

I first began to think about the existence of an alt-left while contemplating several bloggers and authors/speakers whom you are probably already familiar: James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, as well as bloggers like Ran Prieur, Nicole Foss, the late Michael Ruppert, Charles Hugh Smith, and many others. I’m also thinking of a lot of the people regularly published on, for example– Gail Tverberg, Ugo Bardi, Chris Martenson, Richard Heinberg, Albert Bates, Nate Hagens, Charles Eisenstein and many others too numerous to mention.

A lot of similar critiques can be found in the Deep Green/Transition Town/Permaculture/Neo-Luddite/Slow ‘X’ movements as well. These are also well outside of the mainstream Left critique. I’m thinking of people like Derrick Jensen, Kirkpatrick Sale, John Zerzan, Rob Hopkins, Chris Smaje, among numerous others.

Now, I don’t think anyone would lump these people together with the Alt-Right as commonly understood. Typically, in today’s climate they are placed on the “leftward” end of the political spectrum. However, Their views diverge pretty dramatically from those of the Mainstream Left as currently constituted, even people considered to be at the “far” end like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They certainly diverge from the narratives put forward in the current “Left” media, which seems to have degenerated into little more than a non-stop Trump hate-fest (e.g. The Huffington Post, Slate, Salon, The Nation, MoJo, The Atlantic, etc.).

Many of these writers came out of what was known as the “Doomer,” “Collapse” or “Peak Oil” community. While their analyses did include Peak Oil/collapse concepts, their critiques went far beyond that.

A lot of writers have subsequently tried to distance themselves from the “Doomer” label, for example, Ran Prieur, who describes a couple of the alt-left’s key points:

April 12. …Today I want to distance myself from doomers…it’s tricky to say where I disagree with the normal collapse idelology [sic]. I agree with a lot of the details, for example that economic growth can’t continue on a finite planet, and that modern life is a worse fit for human nature than most of the ways we lived in the past. But I don’t think the human response to these crises is limited by my own imagination, that just because I can’t see a way through, billions of people at the edge of survival will just roll over. I have a lot of respect for unknown unknowns.

So who are these people? Maybe they constitute an alt-left? By coincidence, after I began thinking about this, an event was held grouping three of the above writers together on stage. You’ve probably already seen the panel discussion:

John Michael Greer, James Howard Kunstler, Chris Martenson, Frank Morris, and Dmitry Orlov Discuss Trump, the Inequality Taboo and Other Hot Topics (Naked Capitalism)

So, by having these thinkers together on one stage, I think it’s safe to say that there is some sort of coherent enough philosophy that we might be able to outline its key principles and define it as something we can term an “Alt-Left.” But what are those principles?

The Mainstream Narrative

I’ve already discussed the mainstream Left’s views on multiculturalism and diversity in my previous entry. Now, let’s focus on some other aspects of the mainstream left. From a recent post by Peter Turchin:

One of the most interesting passages in [the book] Listen, Liberal is [Thomas] Frank’s characterization of the Republicans as the party of 1 percent—nothing new here—and the Democrats as the party of the 10 percent—which is the interesting part, and a new idea, at least to me.

What does he mean by “the party of the 10 percent”? It is generally agreed that back in the days of FDR, Truman, and Johnson the Democrats were the party of the Working America (even if the leaders were often recruited from the “aristocracy”, like FDR). Today, however, they are the party of “professionals”: “doctors, lawyers, the clergy, architects, and engineers—the core professional groups—the category includes economists, experts in international development, political scientists, managers, financial planners, computer programmers, aerospace designers, and even people who write books like this one.” And college professors. (Parenthetically, although I and my university colleagues would surely object to be called the “elite”, that’s how the fly-over America thinks of us. We are branded as the “East Coast Liberal Elite.”)

Returning to Frank’s point, the 10 percent are the technocracy, the credential class, the meritocracy (“meritocracy is the official professional credo—the conviction that the successful deserve their rewards, that the people on top are there because they are the best”). They believe in the power of education. “To the liberal class, every economic problem is really an education problem, a failure by the losers to learn the right skills and get the credentials everyone knows you’ll need in the society of the future.”

Listen, Liberal – Part II (Cliodynamica)

Now, Frank is ostensibly writing about the “New” Left, but I think he successfully defines the world view of both the Mainstream Left and Right today. The Mainstream Left and Right have, to a great extent, merged–and abandoned the vast majority of citizens in countries around the world in the process. Although Frank is writing of America specifically, his analysis can extend to elites in Europe and Asia as well. They have become a transnational globalized “merit-based” elite, occupying a handful of global cities while the rest of the planet has been converted into basically a heavily-policed colony for resource extraction to support them.

The idea that “more education” is the solution to each and every problem we face, which Frank notes above, extends to both the Mainstream Left and the Right, I think. This has given rise, for example, to the “education-industrial complex” in the U.S. Yet, despite already historically unprecedented levels of educational attainment, problems with joblessness and social decay persist and are getting worse.

The idea that “more education” cannot solve our current problems is alien to the mainstream narrative. The Left wants to make education “more affordable” by extending cheap loans, while the Right clamors for ineffective “market-based” solutions and offers tax shelters (which only benefit children of the already wealthy), but neither is willing to accept that the need for educated workers is dropping, and more schooling alone does not equal a more educated and capable population.

Related to this is the idea that the System is working just fine, and only needs a few tweaks to resolve all of our current issues. The top-down technocratic management of society by the union of Big Government, Big Transnational Corporations, and the Banking Cartel is fundamentally sound. In other words, we’ve hit a temporary hiccup in our progress, but soon the kinks will be worked out and we’ll be back on our regularly scheduled trip to Utopia. Perhaps a TED Talk will have the answer!

Another is a belief in social engineering. “Nudge theory” is only the latest manifestation of this. We are bombarded every day with messages that tell us how we “should” behave (or how elites think we should). The mainstream Right likes to denounce social engineering but engages in it just as much as the Left; they just want different outcomes (docile, obedient cubicle serfs quietly serving their corporate masters and paying taxes). Advertising/marketing/PR itself is just social engineering on a large scale.

I would also posit that an important link between the mainstream Right and Left is the idea that globalized Markets are fundamentally superior and the only valid way to organize society (a.k.a. Neoliberalism). The Left and Right may differ, of course, on how much regulation of the Market they feel is required, or how generous the social safety net should be, but neither of them differ on that fundamental point. The Left may prefer a bit less inequality, the Right a little more, but they all agree on the fundamental points of Neoliberalism and Austerity.

It’s the “end of history” hypothesis. For the mainstream Left and Right There truly Is No Alternative—Globalized Markets and Liberal Democracies have triumphed. Any alternative is unthinkable; there is no going back. We just need a social program or two, maybe fiddle with the tax rates or add a few regulations here and there, and everything will work out just fine.

Another is an almost theological belief in technological innovation as the solution to problems. This attitude was described by Vaclav Smil in an interview with WIRED Magazine:

Today, as you know, everything is “innovation.” We have problems, and people are looking for fairy-tale solutions—innovation like manna from heaven falling on the Israelites and saving them from the desert. It’s like, “Let’s not reform the education system, the tax system. Let’s not improve our dysfunctional government. Just wait for this innovation manna from a little group of people in Silicon Valley, preferably of Indian origin.” You people at WIRED—you’re the guilty ones! You support these people, you write about them, you elevate them onto the cover! You really messed it up. I tell you, you pushed this on the American public, right? And people believe it now.

Both mainstream Left and Right are wedded to the notion of eternal Progress–the idea that things are perpetually getting better and better for everyone. They love to deploy statistics compiled by, for example, the late Dr. Hans Rosling and Stephen Pinker, demonstrating how much richer and safer the world has gotten over the past hundred years under their “enlightened leadership,” and how much wealthier the “poor” nations of the world have become. This is their justification for moving forward with the Neoliberal project. To that end, any dissent from the status quo amounts to a return to barbarism! The “sacrifice zones” of the industrial heartlands of America and Europe are simply the price to pay for global progress. I call it “omelette ethics”—the idea that “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs…”

Neither side deals with the idea that there are fundamental limits to growth, or that we have lost a great deal in our relentless push to modernize. None of them deal with the crises of unemployment, obesity, mental illness, or pollution, for example. To them, every problem we face can be solved with either more education, more economic growth, more markets, more migration, more regulations, or more technology, full stop.

Expanding and growing the economy is imperative for both the mainstream Right and Left; on this issue, there is no difference. Neither of them question the basic assumptions of our current society on a deeper level. I summarized them last time: productivism (growthism); top-down technocratic management; centralization of power; educational meritocracy; multiculturalism; cosmopolitanism; globalism; corporatism; consumerism; financialization; technological progress, laissez-faire capitalism; natalism, meliorism, scientific rationalism, materialism, the belief in “progress,” and so forth.

For a good overview of “mainstream” Left thinking, you would be hard-pressed to do better than this “Big Idea” VOX article: 7 reasons why today’s left should be optimistic. Among the highlights:

Science and Technology are our friends—Presenting an almost giddy techno-optimism straight out of the movie Tomorrowland:

From smart phones, flat screen TVs, and the internet to air and auto travel to central heating and air conditioning to the medical devices and drugs that cure disease and extend life to electric lights and the mundane flush toilet — the list is endless — technology has made people’s lives both much better and much longer than ever before. The average person today is far, far better off than her counterpart in the past. As the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it, the so-called good old days were old but they were not good.

And what do we have to thank for all these spectacular advances? It’s technology that has made possible the new goods, machines, medicine and so on that we consume, and that has fueled the economic growth that allows us to consume at such a high level. One would think, therefore, that the left would embrace techno-optimism: After all, if the goal is to improve people’s lives, rapid technological advance is surely something to promote enthusiastically.

Yet many on the left tend to regard technological change with dread rather than hope. They see technology as a force facilitating inequality rather than growth, destroying jobs, especially for manual workers, turning consumers into corporate pawns rather than information-savvy citizens and destroying the planet in the process. We are far, far away from the traditional left attitude that welcomed technological change as the handmaiden of abundance and increased leisure — or, for that matter, from the liberal optimism that permeated the culture of the 1950s and ’60s, the optimism that offered up tantalizing visions of flying cars and obedient robots.

The mainstream Left and Right embrace a muscular techno-optimism, and decry those who don’t as ignorant Luddite “pessimists” standing in the way of even greater progress. Oh, and in case you’re worried about the millions of people already unemployed under the current regime of technology:

Continuing technological advance is unlikely to produce a future of no jobs. It will lead instead to a future of different and more highly skilled jobs… the history of technological advance is full of transformations that put workers out of jobs in one sector only to have more jobs created in others as demand for new products and services grow.

Jobs for the already wealthy and well-connected 10 percent, perhaps. For the rest of us, not so much. According to the mainstream Left, we can just teach everyone to code and problem solved! (c.f. Frank’s comments above). After all, look how well “more education” has worked out thus far. Gee, I can’t imagine why people are abandoning the Mainstream left narrative in droves.

Globalization is a force for Good: – Basically the old “The Chinese are Getting Richer” argument:

Many on the American left seem to miss this, but the world is getting to be a much better place. Since 1950, the proportion of the world’s citizens living in extreme poverty has declined from 72 percent to under 10 percent, while world life expectancy has increased from 48 years to 71. These remarkably positive changes have actually accelerated in the past 25 years, as globalization has intensified.

And they’ve gotten much richer by making all our stuff (although some have argued that subtracting China would make all these alleged global gains disappear). And what about those poor, unfortunate, losers out in the Rust Belt? Just a minor wrinkle; nothing to trouble yourself with:

Of course, it is true that globalization has had some negative effects — for example, on manufacturing jobs in developed countries — but these are exaggerated. The decline of industrial employment is a very long-run trend that predates the sharp rise in globalization toward the end of the last century. If you plot the share of manufacturing jobs in overall US employment since 1948, there has been a steady decline from a high of about 35 percent to less than 9 percent today. This decline can be traced to rapidly rising productivity in the manufacturing sector — the same output could be produced with fewer workers — combined with shifts in demand toward services, reflecting a rise in consumer affluence.

Affluence (even of the American middle-class variety, not the Jeff Bezos variety) leaves more room in family budgets for non-necessities: 46 percent of consumption spending was on the basic necessities of food and clothing in 1947 compared with less than 18 percent today.

A rise in consumer affluence? Wait a minute, in 1947, most families could sustain themselves comfortably on a single income, even without a college degree. I know because my grandparents (and everyone they knew) did it. What’s going on here? From the Turchin post cited above:

…American workers are not stupid and they know that they are fed bullshit. When you go to a meeting with your company’s CEO and other corporate officers and they tell you that you either accept a pay cut, or they will move the factory to Mexico—who are you going to believe, your own experience or the Theory of Comparative Advantage? And then, a couple of years later, despite you having agreed to a wage cut, they still move the factory to Mexico.

Yet both the mainstream Left and Right support unfettered globalism and “free trade,” and denounce anyone who doesn’t as a xenophobic racist.

So, I guess, never mind that opioid deaths are reaching AIDS-epidemic crisis levels in Middle America, the Unnecessariat has plenty of money to spend on McDonalds and iPhones. What are you liberals whining about, anyway? Just ignore those tent cities springing up all over the country.

Besides, the mainstream Left argues, that White demographic is rapidly dying off anyway, and that’s a good thing! All we have to do is sit and wait it out for a few more election cycles:

Consider how strong Democratic growth will be. The share of white non-college voters is dropping 3 points every presidential cycle, replaced by ever more minorities and college-educated voters. The growth of minorities is particularly striking. Right now, there are only four majority-minority states: California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas. But the next two majority-minority states, Maryland and Nevada, should arrive in the next three years. After that, there should be four more in the 2020s: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey. In the 2030s, these states should be joined by Alaska, Louisiana, and New York — and in the 2040s by Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Virginia.

And if White people don’t die off fast enough, hopefully the elderly will:

Together, millennials and Gen X-ers accounted for 57 percent of eligible voters in 2016, an advantage that was tamped down by the relatively higher turnout of older generations. But by 2024, millennials and Gen X-ers, plus the emerging post-millennial generation, will constitute fully 68 percent of eligible voters. What’s more, the millennials and Gen X-ers will have aged into much higher turnout years. Silents, the most conservative generation by far, will be down to a mere 7 percent of eligibles.

Gee, I can’t imagine why White Heartland voters aren’t turning out for the Democrats in droves, can you? Maybe it’s because the Democratic party can barely conceal their glee over the extinction of this demographic, rather than, you know, actively trying to engage with their concerns. Reading stuff like this, you can really understand where the idea that the Democratic party actively hates white people comes from.

The clean energy revolution is underway – Electric cars/Elon Musk to the rescue!!!

In the past few years, even as fossil fuel prices have declined, world investments in clean energy, chiefly wind and solar, have reached levels that are double those for fossil fuel. Renewables now provide half of all new electric capacity worldwide. (And two-thirds in China, which has drastically cut its plans for new coal plants.) It’s increasingly common, at least in some countries and some regions of the United States, for clean energy to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

The rapidity with which clean energy is becoming cheaper and more available is underappreciated. The cost of solar has fallen to 1/150th of its 1970s level, and the amount of installed solar capacity worldwide has increased a staggering 115,000 times. These exponential trends are hard to properly assess, even for those whose business it is to do so. For example, Ramez Naam, a US technologist and proponent of clean energy, posited in 2011 that solar power was following a kind of Moore’s Law for energy. (Moore’s Law projected that microchips would double in efficiency every two years.) Such efficiency gains would allow solar energy systems, which had by then fallen to about $3 a watt, to drop to only 50 cents a watt by 2030. However, Naam noted in the spring of 2015 that he had been way too conservative: Solar power systems by early 2015 had already hit the 50 cent mark.

Another variation on the “innovation will save us” argument (c.f. Vaclav Smil, above).

Naam, who was a former VP at Microsoft, is emblematic of the kind of rootless, cosmopolitan elites hovering above us that Frank describes as the being the core of the new mainstream Left:

Ramez Naam was born in Cairo, Egypt, and came to the US at the age of 3. He’s a computer scientist, futurist, angel investor, and award-winning author…Between stints at Microsoft, Ramez founded and ran Apex NanoTechnologies, the world’s first company devoted entirely to software tools to accelerate molecular design. He holds 19 patents related to search engines, information retrieval, web browsing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

No wonder he’s so stoked for the future!

Implicit in this view is that renewable energy will simply plug in to where fossil fuels were with no changes whatsoever to our living standards or economic arrangements. We will not have to change our extravagant lifestyles–or at least the upper 10 percent will not.

The idea that we have to fundamentally alter our living arrangements—along with our blind dependence on growth at all costs—will never enter the mainstream left narrative. And speaking of growth:

Trump can’t solve people’s problems. The left can. How? Through more economic growth, of course!!!

Nowhere is that opening greater than on the issue of growth that leads to better jobs and higher living standards. The Democratic Party is more or less united around a programmatic approach to the economy that could actually produce such growth — an approach some of us call “equitable growth.” It pushes back on inequality, seeing current high levels as an active detriment to growth, and seeks to combine support and opportunity for the broad middle class with investments to make the economy more productive.

This includes universal pre-K, free access to two years and some four-year colleges, paid family leave, subsidized child care, higher minimum wages, a commitment to full employment, and robust investments in infrastructure and scientific research, especially around clean energy.

How strong growth can be with a better approach is a matter of debate. Certainly, the 4 percent annual rate bandied about the Trump administration is fanciful. But, as Jason Furman, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, recently pointed out in Vox, we should “do everything that [we] can for growth, because over time a few tenths of a percent really do matter” And of course, the point is not just to grow faster but to better distribute that growth. The left’s approach will do both.

Yes, according to the mainstream Left, growth will solve all our problems, won’t it?

The idea that we can have some sort of magical “equitable growth” not based upon trickle-down seems like a pipe dream given the current political climate, as is the idea that we will have either the political will or the resources to establish the laundry list of big government programs listed above. Our government is entirely captured by special interests. Also, notice how many of those government programs boil down to “more education.”

And, of course, unlike the gloomy realism pessimism of the Alt-Left, the Mainstream Left presents a sunny view of our future, where things are getting better and better for everyone all the time (e.g. “America is Already Great!”):

It’s time for the left to realize that pessimism is an absolutely terrible selling point — and to downplay that aspect of left self-presentation. If things were terrible yesterday, are worse today, and are likely to get even worse tomorrow, this does not motivate the typical person to engage in heroic struggle to change the world. It is more likely to make them cautious, guarded, and determined to hold onto what little they have. To the extent the left wallows in a slough of despond [sic] about the state of the world, it only manages to undercut its ability to mobilize ordinary people. Optimism, by contrast, mobilizes people…Leftists and liberals should promote … a sense that positive change has been, is, and will continue to be possible. That will make it far easier to mobilize their fellow citizens.

Maybe a “heroic struggle” to “change the world” is what got us into this predicament in the first place. Gee, I wonder who could possibly be this clueless and delusional:

Ruy Teixeira’s new book is The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think. He is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Ah, yes, the mainstream Left’s think tanks are all about “Progress,” aren’t they, while the Right’s are all about “Freedom.” Neither offers much in the way of progress or freedom to anyone besides a small technocratic elite.

Techno-optimism, perpetual economic growth, multiculturalism, globalism, more education, “just desserts” meritocracy—there is really not much difference between the mainstream Left and Right anymore, is there? No wonder people are increasingly flocking to alternatives, including some very toxic ones.


By contrast, the Alt-Left have very different ideas. We can summarize some of the major points as:

– Infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible.

– There are limits to the growth of both resources and population.

– Economic expansion has been enabled by the exploitation of fossil fuels over the last 200 years: coal, oil, natural gas, shale, tar sands, etc.—energy resources which are finite in supply and will eventually be exhausted. Other resources like fresh water, topsoil, fertilizer, and rare earth metals are also critical to our continued economic expansion are also finite in supply and are rapidly being depleted.

– The massive release of these fossil fuels is destabilizing the relatively stable Holocene climate on which human civilization depends.

– Our relentless economic growth has engendered countless environmental catastrophes: the erosion of topsoil, species extinction, algae blooms, the Pacific Garbage Patch, polluted water, air saturated with soot, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, felled rain forests, desertification, depleted aquifers, bleached coral reefs, ocean acidification, melting glaciers, ozone holes, and on and on and on. Our economic system is basically committing ecocide.

– Capitalism and the Market only work in conditions of growing surpluses. They cannot achieve a steady state; only growth or collapse. Issues like extreme inequality and the unfair distribution of resources are ignored by society’s leaders by focusing only on perpetual growth.

– More and more technology is not inherently better. Increasingly, technology is being deployed to solve problems caused by previous technologies, and often ends up causing more problems than it solves. Technology is increasingly delivering diminishing returns. Not every problem has a technological solution.

– The notion of eternal progress is a myth. History is cyclical—periods of growth are always followed by periods of dissolution and collapse.

– Markets are not the idealized, perfectly-calibrated information-processors headed towards equilibrium described in economic textbooks, but rather come about through the interaction of flawed, irrational, ignorant and greedy human beings. They do not lead to the ideal distribution of resources, but rather extreme inequality and instability. They are prone to regular speculative bubbles, manias, panics and crashes. Economic systems are built around things like trust as much as anything else, which are ephemeral, unmeasurable and unpredictable.

– Corporations’ only goal is to maximize profits by any means necessary. To this end they privatize profits and socialize losses to the greatest extent possible. For this reason, they have become threats to human freedom and the natural world. Trusting them to provide for all our needs is dangerous and delusional.

– Money has utterly corrupted representative democracy. We live in a plutocratic kleptocracy. Bankers and financiers—not voters—call the shots.

– Debts always grow faster than the ability to repay them. Building an economy around usury is unsustainable. Without some sort of debt forgiveness, the majority will end up in hock to a tiny minority, hollowing out society.

– Financialization does not produce real wealth, only the illusion of wealth. Speculation is out of control. Banking should be a public utility.

– Extreme inequality has historically torn societies apart, not pushed them to “higher” levels of development.

-The media exists primarily to distract, not inform. Much of it is propaganda put forward to further the agenda of wealthy elites.

– The economic system we have built is inherently fragile. Having us all be dependent on vast supply chains extending across the globe even for our daily needs is a recipe for disaster. We are all roped together like mountain-climbers–any problem anywhere in the system can bring everything crashing down quickly.

– Small, scale, local, regional solutions are more responsive and resilient than large-scale, top-down, centralized solutions. People should have agency to make their own decisions about their own communities. Top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions often do not work.

– Local economies work because money circulates through them. Large corporation suck wealth out of communities and deposit it on Wall Street and other remote financial centers.

– People should be able to meet their daily needs using local resources, including their food needs.

– The idea that we can create enough jobs for everyone, or send everyone to school, and that this will solve all our problems, is delusional.

– The profit motive leads to things like rent-seeking, monopolies, planned obsolescence, lower-quality goods, frivolous patents, etc. It also leads to the wholesale plundering of the natural world.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

There are also a number of social concepts that arise from the above notions:

– We are social creatures. Our way of life is fundamentally at odds with the kinds of close-knit tribal communities we evolved in for hundreds of thousands of years.

– No man is an island. We are not isolated “rugged individuals,” but part of a broader social fabric, with basic obligations to one other.

– An environment centered around work, the acquisition of material goods, and status seeking, has left us feeling empty and sad.

“Our archaic firmware just can’t keep up in this evolutionarily novel socially networked environment.”

– Depression and mental illness are epidemic because we are living in environments that are highly toxic and unsuited to basic human psychological needs. Advertising stokes our feelings of dissatisfaction and inadequacy in order to get us to buy things we don’t really want or need.

-Our work today is increasingly boring and alienating. Our jobs are precarious. Our need to move around for the economy’s needs prevents developing any sense of community. We are cogs in a machine. Our dependence on “jobs” where we get paid a salary by some big institution, often to do socially useless work, is a historical anomaly.

– We incorrectly believe that economic expansion will somehow solve all of our social problems. In fact, the social sphere is often in conflict with the imperatives of economic expansion.

– The impersonal capitalist Market turns us all into cutthroat competitors, undermining social cohesion. A “dog-eat dog” mentality leads to an environment where sociopaths climb to the top.

– Progress for the few leads to immiseration for the many. Extreme inequality is detrimental to the health and well-being of both the rich AND the poor on multiple levels.

– There IS such a thing as culture, and we abandon it at our peril. The amoral relativism of modernism where “everything goes and nothing matters,” leaves people unmoored, isolated and confused. People inherently want to belong, and they want to be part of something larger than themselves.

Again, I could go on, but that gives a good summary of some of the major points.

If you believe in the above propositions, well, then, you may be part of the Alt-Left. I suspect many people who might identify as part of the Alt-Right will agree with quite a few of these sentiments as well. The differences, as I see it, are in the Alt-Right’s embrace of extreme inequality, individualism, anti-collectivism, anti-democracy, laissez-faire libertarian capitalism, unlimited wealth accumulation, white supremacy, racism, misogyny, hereditarianism and Social Darwinism.

Next time, we’ll take a look at what lies at the heart of the Alt-Left critique.

Diversity and the Alt-Left

In this post by Matt Breunig at Medium, he makes the case that many on the nominal Left are slowly and reluctantly coming around to the idea that diversity makes social safety nets difficult or impossible for societies to create and sustain through undermining social cohesion, and that this realization is fairly recent. The argument is that people do not wish to contribute to the collective social good when they believe it primarily benefits people who are unlike them. In addition, divide-and-rule strategies are easier to deploy by elites of diverse societies to keep the people fighting amongst one another and enable kleptocracies.

I think this realization largely comes from the political climate of the last few decades. Since Civil Rights, the Left has stood by and watched helplessly as pro-corporate forces have used white racial grievance and hot-button “wedge” issues to dismantle the social safety net piece-by-piece, roll back worker protections, and return wealth disparity back to Guided Age levels. The white working class has consistently voted against their own interests since Reagan, and it’s pretty hard to explain by the myth of the “rational voter.” Phenomena like “white flight” in response to well-meaning attempts at social engineering have also contributed to this resignation.

At the same time in Europe, areas hollowed out by deindustrilization have been filled by ethnic migrants from poorer parts of the world (places which, not coincidentally, were impoverished by the imposition of corporate globalism). These enclaves have in many cases, failed to integrate into society, especially with the mass migration of recent times, causing a lot of consternation among Europeans, even those who would never consider themselves racist. The resurgence of domestic terrorism centered around Islam has exacerbated this unease.

This has led to a change in views among the many on the Left that people simply will not contribute as much to a diverse society where people are perceived as being not like them. A social safety net will not work if it applies to all comers, that is, if it is without bounds. And, in turn, attempts to dictate social policy without taking this into account are doomed to fail. Breunig argues that this has been the traditional conservative position all along:

The argument…is that diversity leads to racism, which leads to lower support for the welfare state, and thus creates widespread economic immiseration at the bottom of society. [VOX writer Zack] Beauchamp does not explain why exactly he thinks this is, but other liberal commentators, such as Ned Resnikoff, have attributed it to the “ancient, tribal section of the human brain.”

What follows from this particular argument is pretty clear: you can have diversity or you can have economic justice, but you can’t have both.

Traditionally, this has been the arch-conservative position, especially when you bring in the biotruth of the human lizard brain. It is conservatives who say that we cannot mix different kinds of people, lest we increase social distrust, disharmony, and distance. It is conservatives who say that we need to monitor diversity levels in immigration to ensure that the immigrant share of the population does not get too high and to ensure that the immigrants who do come in are aggressively assimilated so as to erase the differences they initially bring with them.

Not keeping diversity down and different groups separated from one another, conservatives maintain, will destabilize society, turn politics into a dangerous racialized contest for political power, and immiserate people in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And it’s not just white conservatives who say this either. The black nationalist/separatist movements also hold these views…

Liberals and diversity (Medium)

That may have been the traditional arch-conservative position historically, but I think it’s been embraced by many on the nominal Left now, especially based on the political observations during last fifty years in the United States. In their opinion, diversity for its own sake just doesn’t work. The ongoing conflicts between Muslim/North African immigrants and natives in Europe has led many there to the same conclusion. We can consider this as one position which overlaps between the alt-right and what I’m classifying as the alt-left.

Breunig finds this disturbing. He contrasts it with the “traditional” leftist view:

When I was coming up back in the day, this was not the liberal view on diversity…The view then was that racism is a historical development, not an impenetrable feature of the tribal human brain. On this view, human beings are fundamentally the same and socially constructed categories used to divide them… can be overcome by uniting around what human beings have in common.

On this view (which I share) there are obviously frictions caused by difference, especially when a particular difference has been historically weaponized to subordinate people, but those frictions can be overcome by organizing along lines that cut across those differences. The clearest candidate for that is organizing along economic lines that aim to unite working class people of all stripes into political and civil institutions together. But it is also conceivable to organize people along ideological or subcultural lines as well.

If you think that view is wrong, then you should actually explain what you think the consequences of it being wrong are. If diversity and justice really are at odds with one another, then which one should you pick and why? For myself I strongly support both, do not believe they are mutually exclusive, and understand this to be the standard left position.

Breunig may believe what he states above, but I think departing from this “standard left position” is one of the distinguishing features of the alt-left. They might not believe in the strident racism and white supremacy peddled by the alt-right with its questionable science, but they do acknowledge that humans are hard-wired to like cooperate with people like them on some basic level.

Breunig points out the incoherence of the standard liberal position. If the left truly believes that diversity undermines support for the welfare state and social justice, how,then, can they continue to support things like open borders, birthright citizenship and sanctuary cities?

More and more, it seems like liberals in The Discourse agree with this basic conservative assessment of how diversity affects society. But, despite that underlying agreement, they somewhat bizarrely resist the conservative conclusion. Despite telling you that they think increasing diversity will result in children going hungry, as well as the mass incarceration and widespread discrimination of minority groups, they nonetheless support it.

If liberals are going to adopt the conservative view on how diversity operates in society, then they really do need to also work out what they think the implication of it is. Conservatives are very clear: diversity has all these problems and so it should be restricted. But the liberal view — that diversity has all these problems and yet it should be expanded without restraint — is just incoherent on its face.

The Alt-Left has no such contradictions. They do question multiculturalism and diversity, not because of white supremacy or genetic determinism, but because they realize how it undermines social justice and social cohesion when handled poorly (as, indeed, it had been). What makes the alt-left different is that, unlike the alt-right, they really do want a healthier society and less inequality, rather than Social Darwinism. Concerning the question above that Breunig poses, the alt-left does believe that diversity and justice are at odds. And unlike the “mainstream” left, they have made their choice: justice.

Both the mainstream Left and mainstream Right are firmly in the open-borders/diversity camp. I think it breaks down something like this:

Mainstream Left: Humans are all fundamentally the same, and differences are only skin-deep. The trend since the dawn of time has been for larger and larger group connections; for widening “spheres of affiliation.” We went from tribes to nations, to states, to transnational, global networks—it’s a general pattern of history that is inevitable and cannot be reversed. Only ignorance stands in the way, and that ignorance can be defeated by teaching education and tolerance. The elite “thought leaders” of society need to fight back against these attitudes by whatever means are at their disposal. Opposition is solely based on troglodyte racist attitudes by a small fringe and should be ignored. Eventually, these racist attitudes will naturally change as they have in the past—after all, even Southern Europeans, Jews, and Irish were once considered out-groups and they have now successfully integrated into mainstream “white” society. We just need to educate and wait it out. Using the power of the state to make disparate peoples live together is morally acceptable. Besides, we need immigration to maintain economic growth rates and provide for retirement funds in the face of low native birth rates.

Mainstream Right: We are dedicated to smashing labor and maximizing returns to capital and the wealthy, regardless of the effects on the social fabric. From that standpoint, open-door policies bring two simultaneous major benefits: 1.) Bringing in the poorest and most desperate workers from around the world to compete against native-born workers keeps wages low and workers fearful and desperate (and has been SOP in America since its inception), and 2.) We can then then use “divide and rule” strategies to play the workers against each another for the scraps we throw them from the table. They will too busy fighting one another to demand things like decent pay, protective regulations, or social safety nets, or to recognize the true source of their misery: the wealthy and globalized corporate monopolies. As Jay Gould once said, “I can always hire half the poor to kill the other half.”

Now, it’s worth noting that one of the tactics of the mainstream Left is promoting the kumbaya platitudes of the first position, while secretly being motivated by the second. I’m looking especially at Silicon Valley and its enthusiasm for H1-B visas here. A common tactic is to play the “racist” card against anyone who questions these motives.

The Right, by contrast, happily militates against open borders and scapegoats various out-groups, even while secretly supporting policies that ensure continued mass immigration without limit. They distract their followers from this obvious contradiction by using classic misdirection: reliable hot-button emotional issues like guns and abortion (e.g. it’s the “Hollywood liberals’ fault!!!), and a tightly-controlled information-dissemination apparatus (FOX News, etc.). Trump was a rather uncomfortable wrinkle in this tactic.

Both positions boil down to the same thing: continued economic growth at all costs, society be damned. Both support large-scale globalized corporate structures over small-scale, local, communal ones.

Both the mainstream Left and Right are united behind “mainstream” economic theory. They may have their preferred economists–Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty on the Left; Greg Mankiw and Tyler Cowen on the Right, for example; but they are solidly behind the current economic paradigm of infinite growth, productivism, corporatism, globalism, cosmopolitanism, meritocracy, technocracy, financialism, and so forth. They just differ on some of the details. They agree, in principle, with economists that we are homo economicus transacting through impersonal markets to exchange value rather than what we really are–tribal and social creatures who have needs beyond what the Market can provide.

What I hear very often from commeters is that the stable, prosperous societies of places like Scandinavia and Japan are only possible due to ethnic homogeneity. For people who truly believe that, and who support these types of societies in principle, it makes sense to be skeptical of unlimited immigration and open-door policies.

It also makes sense if you want something to bind people together besides tenuous market relations and formalized contracts. Prior to the One Big Market, people related to one another through various extra-market relationships. They related through family and blood ties; through village affiliation (Neopolitians); through ethnic affiliation (Italians), through religious affiliation (Catholics), through status (Prince and peasant), through occupation (wool merchant), through secret societies (Masons, Jesuits) and numerous other sources. Anthropologists generally designate kinship as the glue which held traditional societies together. Kinship is biological, but transcends biology; marriage is part of it, as is “fictive” kinship. Ibn Khaldun used the term assibiyah to designate a shared communal sense of social identity and the ability for members of a society to act cohesively.

Now, as I described earlier, the alt-right believes that certain people and cultures are inherently “superior” and “inferior” to others. They believe that culture—everything really—flows primarily from genes. They believe that all human cultures are locked in a “winner take all” Darwinian struggle to the death. I don’t think what I would consider the alt-left believes that; at least I hope not. I certainly don’t. In other words, I don’t think the alt-left hates anyone.

No, I think the alt-left simply opposes the rootless globalism and top-down social engineering engaged in by the technocratic elites of both parties to make “globalism” work for a tiny handful of transnational, cosmopolitan elites, while leaving devastated and hollowed-out societies for the remaining 90 percent of us. And , of course, many of the current “mainstream” opinion shapers, both on the Left and the Right, are included in that 10 percent.

They also recognize the cultural devastation that takes place in order to make this cosmopolitan globalism happen. It’s not a natural process. Long-standing, durable ways of life are shoved aside to produce a deracinated class of precarious economic migrants that can be plugged in to the global economy at will and milked for profits. Again, who benefits from this arrangement? Neither native-born nor migrants. As Dmitry Orlov put it:

National borders are very inconvenient from the corporate point of view. Corporations like to treat labor as a fungible commodity, basically shipping it to whereever it’s required and then shipping it out again when it’s no longer required. It creates this homogeneous, cosmopolitan society where nobody is invested in any paricular place, and that makes them very easy to manipulate and control, and destroys any sense of place that they might have had.

The alt-left wants to preserve traditional lifeways and sense of place because these things are often more respectful of fundmental (Maslovian) human needs and much more resilient. They need much less top-down government and social engineering to function. They are not dependent on the vagaries of transnational markets and the impersonal machinations of finance and money, which routinely tend toward bubbles, manias, panics and crashes. To this end, I would say the alt-left is much more suspicious of libertarian capitalism than the alt-right, which sees libertarian capitalism, even in its current globalized form, as something “natural” and independent of government action (e.g. capitalism works better without government, just like baseball works better without rulebooks or umpires/s)

They also realize that beneath all the happy talk of multiculturalism and spurious accusations of racism by technocratic elites, what’s really going on is breaking the back of labor to maintain the privileged lifestyles of those technocratic elites.

The alt-left believes that the mainstream Left obstinately refuses to acknowledge the reality of tribalism and the fact that we are hard-wired to some extent to naturally want to be with our own kind. Unlike the alt-right, they don’t believe this tendency is a GOOD thing; far from it. Nonetheless, it is still there. We evolved in small-scale tribal societies for millions of years, and that legacy is still with us still. Yes, we’ve managed to overcome that to a great extent, constructing past cosmopolitan societies (for example, The Roman Empire, and even parts of Islamic empires-e.g. Muslim Spain), and on a scale never-before seen in modern times. But, in their view, that’s not a justification for constantly doubling-down and attempting to construct a global society by steamrolling any sense of locality or place, consequences be damned. As this comment puts it:

I’ll tell you what I think, and I fully expect to get flamed to hell and back. We could argue genetic racial differences all day, but regardless you’re never going to get past the fact that humans are tribal. Ran [Prieur] has said on this blog… multiple times… that it’s something we need to learn to get past (I think he called it shit-flinging money tribe war consciousness), but my opinion is that we WON’T get past it so long as the average human has an IQ of 100. You have to get it through your head that most people don’t think about anything, EVER.

Now, some final points I feel are necessary.

1.) I do think diversity is a good thing, in principle. I live in a diverse neighborhood in a diverse city, and I don’t have to– that is by choice. I’m fascinated by different cultures, I love to travel, and I have friends who come from all different parts of the world and from different backgrounds. I would not want it any other way. I think the sharing of cultures contributes immensely to your experience of life. In fact, I ofen tend to get along better with non-Americans than with my own people (who tend to be narcissistic careerists focused on little else besides climbing the status ladder, accumulating goods, and watching spectator sports.)

However, I know that everyone is like me (sadly). I’ve studied enough psychology and anthropology to know that, tragic as it is, the tendency toward nationalism and tribalism is there, as well as the urge to trust one’s own kind, and pretending its not is wishful thinking. Now, we have managed to mitigate it to an extent that was impossible in the past, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the thing is, this happens slowly, over time, by natural means; it cannot be imposed from above or socially engineered by well-meaning bureaucrats.

In short, diversity is a good thing, but like anything else, you can have too much of a good thing.

2.) America is a diverse society and always has been since its inception into the Eurocentric world order. We cannot hope or wish that away, so we’d better just stop whining and find a way to deal with it. We’re not going to be Denmark, so let’s stop trying to pretend we can be.

From day one we’ve had native inhabitants who were shoved aside by invaders from Western Europe. Slaves by the millions were imported from Africa to work in the cotton and tobacco fields. Coolies from all over the world were brought in to keep labor costs low and build infrastructure, such as from Asia. The Southwest is culturally Hispanic and was taken through conflicts with Mexico. Central European peasants flooded in to cities after the Civil War. All these groups are here now to stay, and they’re not going anywhere.

We’re never going to be Japan or Scandinavia, so should we just throw up our hands and give up all hope? We Americans need to find some way to make a functional society despite this legacy. Yes, it makes it harder, but just because something is more difficult does not mean you should not attempt it. You just have to work harder. I’m not a fan of defeatism. Obviously, the situation in Europe is somewhat different.

Or else, we can just wait a few centuries while everyone mates with everyone else and such distinctions disappear as they have in Europe (anyone remember the Goths or the Vandals?). Hopefully we won’t go extinct in the meantime.

3.) I think much of the current ethnic/racial/gender hostility is not caused by diversity per se, but from the zero-sum, musical chairs completion for jobs under globalized corporate monopoly capitalism. That is a problem with our economic arrangement, not with the human “lizard brain.” The Social Darwinism promoted by the alt-right would ensure that this trend becomes ever worse, thereby causing it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy (“see, we’re ‘hard-wired’ to compete against and hate each other!”). They can then claim that such conflict is “natural” and inherent to the human species (instead of being imposed by artificial circumstances, which it is)

If someone’s living comes at your expense, then of course you’re going to hate that person. If it doesn’t, you are much less likely to do so. Capitalists have been using this feature of the Market to their advantage wherever it has been imposed on traditional cultures. It’s led to many flare-ups of ethnic conflict over the years which are subsequently blamed on “fundamental human nature,” or (in the alt-right’s case,) “Low I.Q.”.

Would there be as much resentment and hostility against Hispanics if jobs were plentiful? Against women being economically independent? Against hiring quotas? I think not. These are exacerbated by economic conditions, but we’re told never to think about that. Is it a coincidence that these divisions are flaring up at the same time as jobs are being consolidated and automated away at an increasing rate? Again, I think not.

We’ll explore some other aspects of what I’m calling the alt-left next time.

Where the Alt-Right Goes Wrong

My musings on the alt-right seems to have engendered a larger reaction than I anticipated. It seems that there’s quite a bit of sympathy for many of the alt-right’s positions by people who wouldn’t typically self-identify as “right-wing” or with many of their other positions, which was, after all, a point I was attempting to make in the first place.

First, it’s worth noting that these observations are subjective by nature. No one—and I mean no one—can plausibly give a definitive definition of such a broad and amorphous category, and certainly not one that doesn’t simplify and exclude to some extent. I am basing this mainly on personal observations of what I have seen online. To some extent, anyone’s personal definition is the correct one: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

But what I mainly wanted to do was point out what I saw as the core linking all of the seemingly amorphous ideas together, and that, in my view, was clearly Social Darwinism. I do not recall seeing that fact pointed out anywhere else, even in the Wikipedia entry or the widely-cited Yiannoplis article (which defines the alt-right much more broadly).

Furthermore, Social Darwinism also links the modern alt-right to earlier strains of right-wing authoritarian thinking, including those which happened to be prevalent in Nazi Germany and other parts of Europe (and, it should be noted, in many circles of corporate America as well during that same time period). I stand by that assessment. To the commenter who claimed that the article I wrote amounted to nothing more than screaming “These are the NAZIS….baaaaahhh!,” well, I think you need to go back and reread it a bit more carefully and engage with some of the arguments. I feel the post was more explanatory that polemic or oppositional. It is you are throwing a tantrum, not I.

It’s worth pointing out that I did not systematically refute all of their points because 1.) That could run to book length; 2.) That was not my goal; and 3.) There are parts of their ideas and philosophies that are worth contemplating to some extent, as with nearly any political philosophy. My purpose was to engage, not to disparage, even though that’s exactly what I was accused of doing. I wanted to find commonalities between the alt-right and the alt-left (which I will define later). However, the sum total of the philosophy I do find objectionable on various grounds.

First, let’s stipulate that humans are animals. They (we) are biological creatures, and thus subject to the same laws of differential reproductive success and descent with modification as all other creatures. That includes the laws of physics and thermodynamics as well. This means that, of course, Darwinian selection is operating on us too. This can be a powerful tool for analysis of the biological world, and, yes, to some extent, human societies, as the recently-developed structural-demographic theories of history attest.

It’s the value judgements that get us, though. Right now, grey squirrels are outcompeting red squirrels in England. Does that mean that grey squirrels are better than, or “superior” to red ones? By what criteria? You could say that their very outcompeting makes them superior, but that statement is such a tautology as to render it meaningless–outcompeting in a biological niche makes them superior by the standards of outcompeting in a biological niche. Are invasive species by definition morally superior?

And besides, what do you do with this information? Does it necessarily lead to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Birkenau? Are we condemned to forever repeat this tragedy? One is reminded of Whitaker Chambers’ famous review of Atlas Shrugged, which seems applicable to the alt-right in general:

…the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them.

From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture — that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive…

“From almost every HBD post and Neoreaction subreddit, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding…”

J.M. Greer had a good insight in response to a comment to one of his posts. Imagine, he said, if you gave chimpanzees the power to direct their own evolution. What would they select for? Most likely enhancing the very things that chimps already do – climbing trees, building nests, hunting colobus monkeys, etc. Or, very likely, aspiring chimp parents would select for the traits that make for an alpha–aggressiveness, physical intimidation, social cunning, and so forth.

Would you ever get to humans this way? No, you’d just have “super chimps.” And the arms race to become an alpha would most likely undermine the viability of the species anyway. That’s a slap in the face to the Social Darwinists who want to select for the traits that allow for success in “free and open” markets and think this will somehow lead to the “next phase” of human evolution. I’m sorry, the idea is just ridiculous.

Now, do the wealthy tend to survive more than the poor? Yes, just as before the advent of modern medicine, all things being equal, healthier people reproduced more than sick ones, and attractive people have more mates than ugly ones. But none of this is due to explicit social design. To some extent, this is unavoidable–it is a law of nature. It stands “outside” of social or economic design; you cannot prevent or encourage it. That was just as true of the middle-class society of the post-war era as the winner-take-all society constructed under Neoliberalism that we currently inhabit.

But that’s a long way from saying that we should intentionally design our societies to kill off large numbers of undesirables “for the good of the species.” Or that those we designate as undesirable in modern-day America truly are so. The bottomless greed, tolerance for risk and Stakhanovite work ethic that makes a good capitalist would probably not have been quite so adaptive in most historical time periods. Who can say which traits will be useful five hundred years from now?

For example, someone may have a mental illness that precludes them from achieving much success in the Market–especially in America where your willingness to blindly follow orders and engage in pointless hoop-jumping seem to have become the main criteria for success. But those same genes may lead to genius a few generations down the line. We simply don’t know, so wiping out those who are unsuccessful at making money right now would most likely backfire. Consider that many of our greatest artists would not have found much success in the Market–Vincent Van Gogh famously sold only a handful of drawings and paintings in his lifetime and was dependent on the charity of his relatives.

Someone posted this article: Survival of the Friendliest (Nautilus). That raises an important point. The Alt-right is very enthusiastic about “science” when it’s confirming their political biases, but when something goes against their preset beliefs, it is simply handwaved away–the very same behavior they accuse their critics of engaging in. Many on the alt-right will solemnly nod their heads at the irreproducability of a lot of scientific research, but then take the most wild and fantastic HBD speculations–devoid of any research at all–as the unvarnished “truth!” (not to mention their faith in economic pseudoscience). Any scientist whose conclusions do not align with their weltanschauung, regardless of the evidence, is a “Cultural Marxist.” Indeed, that’s the only consistent definition of the term I can find. And, yes, there are those on the nominal left who also wave away inconvenient facts as well–it’s not good when anyone does it.

Social Darwinism is based on a simplistic misunderstanding of evolution. Peter Kropotkin pointed out long ago that any species where the members were constantly at each other’s throats would not survive very long. Instead, competition is primarily with outside forces, i.e. securing adequate sustenance and avoiding predators. To accomplish these things, species’ primary strategy is cooperation not competition. And no species cooperates more than man, which is the very key to our success. Undermining that, as the Social Darwinists are wont to do, is suicidal! Yes, there are highly regulated and circumscribed competitions in various arenas, of course, especially for mates. But these are very structured and “ceremonial” in most species. Males butt heads, and then go home. They are certainly not constantly fighting with one another! If they were, they would make an easy meal for predators.

Kropotkin expected to see the brutal dog-eat-dog world of Darwinian competition. He searched high and low—but nothing. “I failed to find, although I was eagerly looking for it,” Kropotkin wrote, “that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.”

Instead he saw mutual aid—everywhere. “In all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes,” Kropotkin wrote, “I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution.” And it wasn’t just in animals. The peasants in the villages he visited were constantly helping one another in their fight against the brutal environment of Siberia. What’s more, he noted a correlation between the extent of mutual aid displayed in a peasant village and the distance of that village from the hand of government. It was just as the anarchists had suggested. “I lost in Siberia,” he wrote, “whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist.”

The Russian Anarchist Prince Who Challenged Evolution (Slate)

I read once that the old Roman saying “Man Is A Wolf To Man” (homo homini lupus) is disingenuous to wolves! Wolves, of course, cooperate on the hunt. And wolf packs do not typically fight one another; each has a circumscribed territory. To hear the Social Darwininsts tell it, every wolf would be in constant competition with the Alpha for even a morsel of food, and wolf packs would be constantly fighting each other for every scrap of territory. That’s not what happens. If that were the case, wolves would have gone extinct long ago. And certainly not even the Alpha claims 95 percent of the pack’s “resources.”

The ultracompetitive drive of market capitalism is a historical aberration, and demonstrating that has been the focus of my writing for much of this past year. The analogy between the Market and the competitive pressures in nature is fundamentally flawed. The idea that success in the Market somehow signals evolutionary fitness in a Darwinian sense is ridiculous (which is why Darwin never said it). It also ignores the fact that markets have been tangential throughout most of human history and yet somehow brought us to the society of the 1870s–the very society that produced Darwin, mind you–without any explicit recourse to eugenics, and for most of that time with economic systems based around combinations of reciprocity, redistribution, householding, religious sympathy, and mutual aid. It bears repeating: over 90 percent of our species’ existence has been as hunter-gatherers. It could just as easily be argued that the expansion of markets have made us less intelligent and capable, as indeed some have argued.

The idea that the anarchic market somehow always rewards the best and the brightest is absurd on its face. It’s hard to believe that George W. Bush and Donald Trump are truly the finest the human species have to offer in terms of competence or leadership qualities.

And now, there’s the emerging science of epigenetics, which is just getting started. Environment effects genetics! Our knowledge of evolution (like many scientific concepts) is constantly evolving and quite incomplete, so to say that we “understand” human evolution enough to justify Social Darwinism as policy is a political, not a scientific, stance. People are “undesirable” from a current economic–not a genetic–view. That’s a problem for our economic system, one that should theoretically be dealt with, not simply accepted as beneficial or “inevitable.” Is it truly the case, as Social Darwinists argue, that “if a person doesn’t produce quantifiable value, they are, objectively, not valuable. Everything else is sentimentality.” I don’t think it is.

Plus, there’s the old “ought-is” question. Even if nature were really as unremittingly harsh and cruel as the Social Darwinists depict it, does that means we should necessarily design human institutions this way? Or should we design them instead to lift up our species in general–all of us–and engage in symbiotic cooperation with each other and our natural environment, which is more likely the key to evolutionary success rather than the “war of all against all” promoted by Social Darwinists. It’s the classic Naturalistic Fallacy–the idea that anything “natural” is somehow good:

…In nature the weakest (least fit) die, so the naturalistic fallacy says that we should dismantle welfare states and withhold charity and health care, to leave poor and ill people to die, or even to exterminate the weak. This ignores Darwin’s actual definition of “fit”; not the strongest but the most adaptable and responsive to change, meaning that “Darwinism” would encourage social safety nets and disaster relief.

Appeal to Nature (Rational Wiki)

Social Darwinism rests on two premises: there exists a constant struggle for survival in nature, and nature is a proper guide for the structuring of society. This is not a scientific idea at all, as it is not a statement about what is but rather a statement about what some people think “should” be.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection describes the propagation of hereditary traits due to the varying “success” of organisms in reproducing. Basing a moral philosophy on natural selection makes about as much sense as basing morality on the theory of gravitational success: rocks rolling down the furthest are the best rocks.

Social Darwinism is basically a circular argument. A group that gains power can claim to be the “best fit” because it is in power, but then the group claims to be in power because it is the “best fit”. Any group in power can use Social Darwinist arguments to justify itself, not just right-wing groups such as fascists. Communists can claim that Communists are the best fit wherever Communists are in power. Ironically, many eugenicists and other racists will insist that DA JEWWS! are secretly in power, yet will never use this logic to insist that Jews are the “best fit”.

Social Darwinism (Rational Wiki)

If we design markets to wipe out large numbers of the human species, does that somehow guarantee “progress?” Who is “good enough?” Who makes that call? Claiming that these questions are somehow settled by “science” is not scientific, it is political. if you want large numbers of people to die, just come out and say it; don’t hide behind some sort of pseudoscientific claptrap.

Just like the fact that human are animals, I think we can also stipulate that they differ greatly in abilities, personality, intelligence and so forth. We aren’t blank slates, as some on the Left have argued, and things like gender are not merely “artificial constructs.” I’m not sure I’d classify those views as hereditarianism, however.

What I mean when I use that term is using genetic determinism to exclude all other factors, including institutional factors of class and power, and to bolster notions of Just-Worldism. Who are the wealthiest? The most capable. Why are they the most capable? Because they are the wealthiest!

To reiterate, it’s hard to believe that leaders like Dubya and Trump got where they are through dint of superior I.Q. Child poverty has exploded in one generation. It’s pretty hard to chalk that up to genetics. The share of income going to the one percent has increased by leaps and bounds within the span of a few decades. Are they getting smarter by the day? How can that be chalked up to genetic rewards to talent? It’s when genetics are used to justify all of this that I object.

[William Graham] Sumner was unabashed in his admiration for millionaires, and indignant at criticism lobbed in their direction. “The rich are good-natured,” he insisted, model citizens to be applauded for their initiative and patience with lesser souls. He approved the “aggregation of large fortunes” as “a necessary condition of many forms of social advance.” Toward that end, he argued strenuously against restrictions on Wall Street stockjobbing and other forms of speculative gain. “To denounce financial devices which are useful and legitimate because use is made of them for fraud is ridiculous,” he wrote. Also to be avoided were government investigative commissions, increased taxes, and Sunday-morning haranguing about how the rich owed something to the poor…

Sumner’s list of deadbeats and drags on society will be familiar to any casual observer of modern conservative politics. First were the social reformers (usually well-educated Northeasterners, preferably women), whom Sumner chastised for their arrogance, hypocrisy, and dangerous utopian schemes. Next came government bureaucrats, typified by the “obscure clerk” whose small-minded enforcement of rules threatened to crush the nation’s visionary spirits. Finally, there were the poor themselves—often “negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent.” “A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be,” Sumner argued with his trademark bluntness. He even went so far as to denounce democracy itself, viewing mass voting as a modern experiment perilously close to mob rule.

“A Drunkard in the Gutter Is Just Where He Ought To Be” (Slate)

Recall that the One Big Market is less than a couple centuries old, and even then only in Western Europe. Even the most “rapid” evolutionary traits which have been studied, such as lactase persistence and malaria resistance, take dozens if not hundreds of generations to propagate through a population by even the most generous estimates by geneticists. Evolution did not produce the Market.

By the same token, if you look at inequality in societies, it’s pretty hard to believe they are just due to “natural” genetic differences in ability, capability, intelligence, and so forth. Debt, nepotism, inheritance, the Law of Cumulative advantage, political factors, and just pure, dumb luck also play a role. Hereditarians would have us ignore all of this in favor of “Da Genez.”

Recall too, that nation-states are only a few centuries old, and then, too, only in Western Europe. To claim that entire nations are failures due to poor genetics and low IQ scores ignores the fact that boundaries were drawn up just a few generations ago around arbitrary and unrelated peoples in much of the world, who were then ruthlessly colonized and exploited. Somehow these “Low IQ” countries managed to be viable societies before Europeans arrived on the scene with the One Big Market, the Hut Tax, National Debt burdens, and other social “innovations,” (albeit at a lower level of technology). As much as I rip on mainstream economists, they did have a potent refutation of Clark’s hypothesis: a photograph of the Korean peninsula at night taken from outer space. Here was a population separated for only half a century, and yet half the peninsula blazed bright from one of the most advanced economies in the world, while the other half was almost entirely dark, mired in one of the planet’s most repressive political regimes.

Korea at night. Genetics? Or something else?

How much lower I.Q.’s do the North Koreans have than the South, I wonder? Or from North Americans? Is it genetics? Or is it something else?

When Westerners first came to Japan with their technology, many Japanese were quick to identify themselves as inherently inferior, and argued that their only hope was to systematically breed with the foreigners. Contra Clark, Japan managed to industrialize much faster than England did–bad news for the “genetic” theory. Now they are known for cutting edge high-technology. By the 1980’s the shoe was on the other foot–Japanese were depicted as clearly “superior” to lazy and spoiled North Americans. But then, their real-estate bubble burst and economic growth for all intents and purposes came to a halt. Now their society is quite stable, but their birthrate is among the lowest on earth.

So, are they superior or inferior?

The use of IQ testing has strayed very far from its initial origins. It was never meant by its developers as a winnowing mechanism and all-purpose silver-bullet explanatory variable that it has become in the fevered musings of the alt-right:

“Where did the IQ test start? When Alfred Binet came up with the IQ test, the point of it was to measure where people were as a way to target how they could improve. And then Lewis Terman and the eugenicists hijacked the IQ test and made it this permanent thing. Alfred Binet in 1909 said that this pessimistic tendency [had] developed in terms of what the I.Q. test is, and we have to fight that. If you talk to Carol Dweck who does all the growth and fixed mindset stuff, she’ll tell you that her whole career is basically devoted to undoing the damage of Lewis Terman. This is now a century old…”
[Tangentially Speaking, Episode 234, 41:00]

I.Q. was designed to assess people and help them improve. That’s a nice idea, isn’t it? And improve they have, as the Flynn Effect demonstrates. Its wasn’t meant to determine who was inherently superior or inferior, who is rich and who is poor, and certainly not who should live and who should die. Interpreting all of human history and social structures solely through the narrow lens of IQ and Darwinism, as the alt-right does, leads one down the path to the nihilistic and deterministic thinking that pervades their writings. Yes, using these as tools can be useful, but in the end they are just tools.

Of course, Social Darwinism and heritarianism cut across strict political boundaries, and have for a long time. The right loves to point out that many figures in the Progressive and other past social movements nominally considered “leftist” (mainly due to their efforts to reform capitalism) were proponents of eugenics. “You see, the left are the REAL Nazis!!!” Er, no, not really.

The idea that societies are structured as levels as if in a video game is also not a scientific proposition, and is consistently decried by actual scholars of sociology and anthropology. The concept that our ultimate destiny lies “among the stars” and that this is the end goal of the human evolution is just as much theological as the idea that it is the purpose of humanity to glorify God and sit at his right hand for all eternity. Is a high-tech civilization “better?” By what criteria? As with grey squirrels, by shoving aside competitors, perhaps. But I’m sure readers aware that by most measures of human happiness, well-being, health and sustainability, so-called “primitive” societies have us beat by a long shot: Were we happier in the Stone Age? (Guardian)

Finally, there is the thorny issue of tribalism. As one commenter wrote, “The alt-right is much more focused on the conflict’s [sic] generated by multi-racial or multi-ethnic empires/nations. They are also much more concerned with maintaining a high trust society for white people (europeans).” That’s a tricky subject I’ll wade into next time.

A Skeleton Key to the Alt-Right

With all the talk of the alt-right lately, people have attempted to figure out if there is an alt-left.

I do believe there is one.

But before we can talk about the alt-left, we should at least attempt to define the alt-right.

Much of the commentary about the alt-right seems to me like the proverbial blind men grasping different parts of an elephant and not understanding the nature of the animal they are attempting to describe. They merely define a laundry list of features (e.g. antisemitism, Neo-Nazism, nativism, Islamophobia, antifeminism, homophobia) without attempting to define the core belief system that holds it all together.

In my opinion, the core principle that defines the alt-right is Social Darwinism. This ideology ties together several other often-noted features of the alt-right: racism, white supremacy, misogyny, extreme market libertarianism, disdain for democracy, authoritarianism, reactionary politics, and technophilia. From their Social Darwinist belief system flow all the other seemingly unrelated features.

At least that’s my take on what I’ve been able to gather from reading their writings and opinions where I’ve had the misfortune to encounter them.

There is, it should be noted, a strain of the alt-right that differs from this; one that is influenced by Catholic theology and is suspicious of the market and its morals. This is, however, a less important and influential strain.

From what I can tell, much of the alt-right are die-hard hereditarians. They are utterly obsessed with ideas of race and IQ. In their belief, IQ determines everything from individual success, to the success of entire nations.  Wikipedia defines hereditarianism this way:

Hereditarianism is the doctrine or school of thought that heredity plays a significant role in determining human nature and character traits, such as intelligence and personality. Hereditarians believe in the power of genetics to explain human character traits and solve human social and political problems. Hereditarians adopt the view that an understanding of human evolution can extend the understanding of human nature. They have avowedly rejected the standard social science model in favor of applying the scientific method to human social structure.

Pastore has claimed that hereditarians were more likely to be conservative, that they view social and economic inequality as a natural result of variation in talent and character. Consequentially, they explain class and race differences as the result of partly genetic group differences…The Pioneer Fund, established in 1937 to support academic research into the problem of heredity and eugenics and the problems of human race betterment, is now a leading source of funding for scientists wishing to investigate hereditarian hypotheses.

The alt-right believes that races are real; that is, they believe in race essentialism. Furthermore, they believe that there is a clear hierarchy of races, with greater and lesser races, that is superior and inferior ones. Furthermore, they believe that culture is derived from genes.

One of their “sacred texts” is A Troublesome Inheritance by Nicholas Wade, which asserts that race is a real, measurable phenomenon in the human species. While Wade himself condemns racism and the idea that certain races are superior to others, the alt-right itself embraces that idea with gusto. They believe that Europe and the West got to the top (whatever that means) by having superior IQ’s, and that other races have inferior intelligence. They love to trade charts which supposedly correlate GDP and average I.Q., as if the West’s control of institutions and the legacy of colonialism somehow don’t matter. Or, alternatively, they assert that the expansion of the West merely proves the superiority of Europeans, and why they are the fittest to rule.

This ties together their white supremacism and their fear of immigration. Since they believe that culture is derived from genes, they believe that Muslim and African immigration will destroy Western culture by eroding its gene pool. There are all sort of “facts” asserting the inferiority of, for example, Muslim immigrants heading to Europe. One of the more bizarre theories that is circulating now claims that Muslims are all inbred since they all marry their cousins!

Their view of human history is derived from something called the Human Biodiversity Movement, which asserts that culture is shaped primarily, if not exclusively, by Darwinian forces acting on the gene pool. For example, one popular assertion is that the banning of cousin marriage by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages forced Europeans to deal with strangers more often. This caused the West to from institutions which allowed people to deal effectively with strangers, and hence to capitalism! In other words, capitalism, too derives from genes (about which, more below).

They believe, then, that Westerners are not just a different culture, but are genetically distinct from other populations. To that end, they are opposed to “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” They believe that Western culture is clearly superior, that its superiority is what caused it to dominate the world, and that this superiority derived from the genes swashing around in the Western European population, honed by thousands of years of Darwinian evolution. The stagnation of the Muslim world (once by far the most advanced civilization on the planet) in their view was caused by inferior genes, and that these genes are now flowing into the West thanks to the craven political class.

In America, this belief system usually manifests around the alleged inferiority of African-American I.Q’s. To this end, another “sacred text” of the movement is Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve. In other words, African-Americans are poor because they are stupid, European Americans are rich because they are smart. Full stop. Any attempts to explain this result not using genetics is “feel good liberalism” and, to use their favorite epithet, “Cultural Marxism.” African-Americans are depicted in much of the alt-right as little more that apes. Such people like to call themselves “race realists” (as opposed to “racists”) and claim that the only thing to do with inferior Africans is to exterminate them. To this end, some of the more extreme factions of the alt-right have no qualms with advocating a “final solution” type scenario for those people and races they feel are “inferior” (as determined by them, of course).

It follows then, in their view, that society is, and has always been, a pure meritocracy determined by IQ. That is, the social structure and institutions don’t matter. The cream rise to the top, the scum sink to the bottom, and it’s all based on the packet of genes inherited from mom & dad, no matter what social system happens to be operating. And white males, having the best combination of high-IQ’s and aggressiveness, are the “natural” leaders of such a society. All the “politically correct” denigration of white males in favor of “diversity” and “feminism” is causing society to fall apart, they believe.

So this ties together racism, white supremacy, male chauvinism, Islamophobia, and a hatred of diversity, multiculturalism, and immigration. Misogyny also springs from this same root, but is a bit harder to describe.

In the alt-right, women are depicted as mere “breeding machines” blindly following the dictates of their reproductive instincts above all else. This is tragic, because women’s “natural” instincts will cause the to mate with less intelligent “cavemen” type-men, especially dark-skinned men from regions of the world where women are still treated as chattel. Women are naturally attracted to these “aggressive” males and repulsed by men of their own race because they have been “pussified” by  generations of feminism. This will lead to the gradual elimination of the superior genes that made Western civilization–and laissez-faire capitalism–possible, and cause us to fall back into the Malthusian trap, preventing us from reaching the “next stage” of human evolution (more about that below).

As the alt-right tells it, women will happily join the harems of aggressive dark-skinned foreigners, shunning the intellectually superior, high-IQ men of the West that they ideally should be mating with, and it’s all thanks to feminism and the loss of control over the political and economic institutions of society by white males (they don’t like Angela Merkel and REALLY hate Hillary Clinton).

Furthermore, women are promoting immigration because they inherently want to mate with these aggressive, dark-skinned males. That means, of course, that these men are depicted as both genetically superior AND inferior at the same time.

Womens’ natural reproductive instincts will lead to the downfall of society, the Alt-Right argues, because the superior genes that built the West will no longer be passed along if women’s natural urges are not channeled and controlled by society. Financial independence for women is a grave threat, because women are no longer dependent on high-IQ male “providers,” and inferior genes will begin displacing the superior ones that have brought us to this “high point” of human civilization. This video pretty much explains this philosophy: Why Women DESTROY NATIONS (caps in original)

Might Makes Right and Libertarian Capitalism

So how does libertarian capitalism fit into all this?

Another “sacred text” in addition to those mentioned above is “A Farewell to Alms” by economist Gregory Clark.

Clark asserted that it wasn’t institutions, or social structures, or historical contingencies, or geography, or even the harvesting of half a billion years of stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels, that caused the Industrial Revolution. Rather, what really caused it was the fact that the rich had more surviving offspring than the poor. He bases this on an analysis of wills from a couple of centuries in medieval England. According to Clark, the Industrial Revolution is all down to genetics.

This rest on a few assumptions 1.) The rich have “superior capitalist genes” that they pass along to their offspring. Clark hypothesized these as intelligence, literacy, a willingness to cooperate with strangers, a tolerance for hard work and long hours, and, most especially, time-preference for delayed rewards (creating a propensity to save instead of spend surpluses). And, 2.) That this was unique to medieval England. He argues that in other cultures, the elites were not merchants, and thus were more focused on martial superiority and did not possess the superior “bourgeois genes” that the English merchants did. Or, the rich did not have as much of a reproductive advantage, and the hapless poor were able to pass along their inferior genes, keeping other societies mired in the Malthusian trap. Only England, with its dead peasants and “downward mobility” of the rich was able to escape.

In short, the Industrial Revolution was caused by the ants out-breeding the grasshoppers.

Now, despite this thesis being rejected by almost all economists, geneticists, historians and anthropologists, the alt-right has embraced it with gusto. It follows, then, that Western capitalism is a “superior” system that relies upon the “inferior” poor dying off as fast as possible.

The best way to ensure this result is laissez-faire (leave alone) capitalism! Only the anarchic market devoid of any rules allows the naturally strong (i.e. the genetically superior) to climb to the top. This is where their love of Ayn Rand and her writings comes into play. Like Rand, they believe that it is the “natural order” for the strong and talented to dominate the weak and feckless (and they invariably depict themselves as the strong and talented, and their opponents as less capable and intelligent). And only capitalism–with as few restrictions on the behavior of the elites–is an effective Darwinian mechanism. Of course, the naturally strong and talented people at the top of society tend to be disproportionately white males.

This is the reason they despise the existence of the state and intervention in the “free” market–it allows the weak and feckless to survive at the expense of the strong and capable. Social safety nets, which keep the poor alive, are bad, because they allow the genetically inferior to survive and breed. They are particularly contemptuous of notions of “fairness.” Things which help traditionally disadvantaged members of society–things like quotas and welfare–are undesirable because people on the bottom are there for a very good reason–that’s where they naturally deserve to be!

They embrace an absolute “Might Makes Right” ethos. Any attempts at justice, fairness or solidarity are doomed to fail, they argue, because society is a constant, unremitting struggle of all against all, and always has been. Furthermore, they believe that this is a profoundly good thing! Not only is it a good thing, but we should strive to create as much of a “winner take all” society as we possibly can, because only such a society will Darwinian evolution be driven to the fullest extent. They believe that human nature is fundamentally competitive and acquisitive. Thus, they take capitalism as “natural” and anything else as “unnatural” and therefore “social engineering.”

Thus, the “free” market is not the best means to ensure prosperity for all, as the original market liberals claimed. Rather, suffering and death must be built into the system because only that allows it to act as an appropriate Darwinian winnowing mechanism permitting the “survival of the fittest.” And who are the “fittest?” Those who rise to the top and make the most money are the “fittest” in this system. And these are, inevitably, those with the highest IQ’s thanks to genetics (tying together economics and hereditarianism).

Thus, they tend to oppose anything that might theoretically make society less brutal and competitive. In their view, it must be capitalism red in tooth and claw or nothing! They tend to virulently oppose “redistribution” and applaud extreme inequality as the “natural” reward for the superior rich. Redistribution is “unfair” in their view, and self-defeating, because it takes from the people who produce the most value and gives it to the useless eaters.

This ties into their dislike of the liberal state, which is based on the principle that “all men are created equal” and gives each man a vote (unlike past systems where only property owners mattered). They believe this  allows the mob of “weaklings” to dominate the natural leaders of society, retarding progress. They are fond of citing something called the Tytler calumny, which asserts that democracy is doomed to fail thanks to the hordes of feckless poors:

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.”

Peter Thiel famously echoed this sentiment when he warned that democracy and capitalism were incompatible because democracy allowed the majority to place checks on the the behavior of the rich and the chaos of the anarchic market. In his view, it was democracy that had to go, and the alt-right wholeheartedly agrees. Many of these beliefs are prevalent among the oligarchs of Silicon Valley (because autism tends to depress empathy).

Directional View of History

Finally, the alt-right believes that not only is society a fundamentally Darwinian “survival of the fittest”, but that evolution is teleological–that is, it is purpose driven and has a logical end goal.

Now, every serious scientific student of evolution knows this to be the most common and pervasive misunderstanding of evolution that there is. Evolution is only concerned with survival in a specific context at a specific point in time. It has no end goal other than that.

The alt-right, however, will have none of it! Their view is that human societies are like stages in a computer game, and the goal is to continually progress to the “next level.” The end goal of this Darwinian evolution is to push human civilization to the “next stage”–from the caves to the stars! To this end, they embrace artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, cyborgs, cloning, nootropics, “better living through chemistry,” and the lot of it. Society is destined to move faster and faster, and anyone who can’t keep up needs to be left behind. Anything that slows or retards this progression to the next level–such as allowing inferior people to breed–must be stopped or curtailed. Along with the notion of “Might makes right;” in their ethics, the ends justify the means.

The “end goal” is variously defined as artificial intelligence, machines displacing human life, or humans becoming some sort of immortal transdimensional space-faring cyborgs. Many believe the so-called “Singularity” is the end goal for evolution. Anyone not directly contributing to this end goal (like neckbeard computer programmers or sociopathic Wall Street financiers) needs to die off as quickly as possible–for the good of the species, of course.

This ties together the last remaining strands of the alt-right–their love of Ayn Rand, laissez-faire libertarian capitalism, Silicon Valley and futurology. Thus, I think we’ve described the elephant rather than the leg, trunk, tail. etc.

The alt-right shares with its more mainstream cousins the “bootstrapping” “make your own luck” just-world belief systems, to wit:

Americans are more inclined to believe that people make their own luck than people in countries with more developed welfare states. According to a Pew global attitudes survey, 31% of Germans think that success is determined by forces within their control, whereas 57% of Americans say the same. It follows from this that those who do not have insurance could get it if they only worked a bit harder.

NeoLiberal ideology has an axiom that “jobs are created by those who have money.”  On the face of it, this seems obvious: nobody without the ability to pay you has ever given you a job, I’d bet. The corollary of this is “the more money that rich people have, the more jobs there will be”. So, under Neoliberal ideology, you funnel money to the rich and corporations and they create jobs. Doesn’t actually work, mind you, but that’s what the ideology says.

The ideology also says “money is earned by people because they fill the needs indicated by the market, which represent what people and society want.” Which means “if you have a lot of money, you deserve to have it because you got it filling other people’s needs”.  It also then follows that people with a lot of money are the sort of people who are good at providing what other people want, so therefore they should have more money so they can provide even more. Poor people, by this ideology, do not deserve to have much money, because if they were doing something that other people wanted a lot of they’d have a lot of money. Etc, etc…

These beliefs drive their approach to political decision-making: cut regulations, cut safety nets, deregulate, put as few restrictions on the ability of the rich to accumulate wealth and do as they like as much as possible (i.e. low taxes and no workplace regulations), oppose redistribution, encourage technological innovation with no restrictions, etc. Since the world is a just world based on genetic superiority, institutions don’t matter much anyway. So long as the Market is designed according to a Darwinian “survival of the fittest,” type scenario then “progress” is assured.

New Wine in Old Bottles

Now, none of this is really new. It’s essentially a repackaged version of the same old Social Darwinism that was prevalent at the end of the nineteenth century. This time, their supporters claim to have “science” on their side, but, then again, so did the Social Darwinists back then. I doubt it’s a coincidence that the popularity of this philosophy tends to be directly correlated with the level of social inequality present.

For example, see this article:

[Herbert] Spencer adapted Charles Darwin’s notion of natural selection and applied the theory to human society in a philosophy that became known as “Social Darwinism.” It was Spencer who coined the term “survival of the fittest,” using it to apply to the fate of rich and poor in a laissez faire capitalist society. Spencer argued that there was nothing unnatural — and therefore wrong — with competing and then rising to the top in a cut- throat capitalist world.

“Spencer told [Andrew Carnegie] that it was a scientific fact that somebody like him should be getting to the top,” says historian Owen Dudley Edwards. “That there was nothing unnatural about it, wrong about it, evil about it.”

Not only was competition in harmony with nature, Spencer believed, but it was also in the interest of the general welfare and progress of society. Many successful capitalists of the late 19th century embraced Spencer’s philosophy. These captains of industry used his words as justification to oppose social reform and government intervention. As Spencer said, these would interfere with the natural — and beneficial — law of survival.
“The concentration of capital is a necessity for meeting the demands of our day, and as such should not be looked at askance, but be encouraged,” Carnegie wrote, paraphrasing Spencer. “There is nothing detrimental to human society in it, but much that is, or is bound soon to become, beneficial.”

Furthermore, the notion of superior Western Europeans and inferior darker-skinned peoples is essentially unchanged from the philosophy of the Third Reich–the only thing changed is who is superior and who is inferior and why. Many of the more toxic beliefs that followed from the Third Reich belief system also find their expression in the modern alt-right as well: the notion of a lost golden age, an obsession with decline and fall, a disdain for intellectualism and “degenerate” modernist culture, a low tolerance for ambiguity, the embrace of a “strong” leader and authoritarianism in general, a scapegoating of out-groups (Muslims, immigrants, blacks, homosexuals), and so forth.

And while there is some scientific validity to the study of how cultures affect genetic expression, the alt-right has the tendency to cherry-pick the studies which confirm their pre-existing biases and ignore those that do not. They also ignore science when it tells them what they don’t want to hear–such as the idea stated above that evolution has no purpose or end goal.

The alt-right also takes these ideas and engages in the most wild and fantastic speculation in order to make their racist ideas sound like”scientific” facts. The way they tell it, genes explain EVERYTHING, from the tendency to haggle among Middle-Easterners, to the collectivism of “Orientals,” to the promiscuity of African-American women, to the “laziness” or southern Europeans, to the tendency of Jews to become lawyers (from the Rabbinic tradition of course), to the high math scores of the Chinese (due to the old Imperial examination system). Many of these so-called “explanations” are nothing more than ridiculous speculation, but are treated as gospel truth on the alt-right.

The alt-right is pouring wine into new bottles, but it’s the same old wine!

It’s an astonishingly sociopathic and nihilistic view. Yet it seems to have acquired a certain cachet among a species of online intellectual who claims that only he or she (yes, sometimes she) is a “realist” and that anyone who disagrees with any subset of these ideas is a wishful-thinking touchy-feely “nonrealist” who refuses to face the ugly truth of human nature, or a “cultural Marxist.”

Spring Grab Bag

A new study claims that desertification of the Sahara may have been exacerbated by human activities such as herding. The Sahara Desert is an interesting case, in the sense that its development was a case of cattle before crops. The reason was because the highly variable rainfall and climate made a mobile way of life like herding far less risky than crops which cannot be moved and demand consistent levels of rainfall. But it seems that the needs of cattle may have altered the environment in negative ways.

BY the way, those desert herders may have been the source of much that was unique about Egyptian culture. Many of those features are still seen in African herding cultures such as Nuer and Masai today.

A new paper authored by archeologists with Seoul National University has suggested that the Sahara Desert, once green and wet, dried out as a result of the actions of ancient peoples. The spread of agriculture depleted the Sahara’s plant life and caused the region’s the shift to a desert biome, the paper claims.

Humans may have transformed the Sahara from lush paradise to barren desert (The Conversation)

Was the Sahara Desert Created by Humans? (Science News Journal)

Ancient Humans Created the Sahara Desert, Says Archaeologist (Sputnik News)

Is human sacrifice linked with hierarchy?

In almost all societies, killing within a tribe or clan has been strongly taboo; exemption is granted only to those with great authority. Anthropologists have suspected that ritual human sacrifice serves to cement power structures — that is, it signifies who sits at the top of the social hierarchy.

How human sacrifice propped up the social order (Nature)

Is our narrow definition of agriculture causing us to miss other methods of “agriculture” –of humans transforming the landscape to meet their needs in sustainable ways?

Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe has recently published a book called Dark Emu: Black seeds, agriculture or accident? that challenges the popular perception of our Indigenous past. He argues that the economy and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people has been ‘grossly undervalued’ for the past 200 hundred years. The early writings of white explorers and settlers are central to his argument; they described the cultivated way Indigenous people managed the land.

‘Hunter-gatherer societies forage and hunt for food and do not employ agricultural methods or build permanent dwellings,’ he writes. ‘But as I read these early journals, I came across repeated references to people building dams and wells, planting, irrigating and harvesting seed, preserving the surplus and storing it in houses, sheds or secure vessels … and manipulating the landscape.’.

Rethinking Indigenous Australia’s agricultural past (ABC)

And, related, more evidence that Amazonia was once a food forest, centered around perennials and tree crops:

“Large areas of the Amazon are less pristine than we may think,” said Hans ter Steege, a tropical ecologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, and an author of a paper published in Science on Thursday. “The people who lived there before Columbus left serious footprints that still persist in the composition as we see today.” He was one of more than a hundred researchers who found that domesticated tree and palm species — like cacao, cashews, the açaí palm, the Brazil nut and rubber — were five times more likely to dominate the modern Amazonian forest than nondomesticated plants.

How the Amazon’s Cashews and Cacao Point to Cultivation by the Ancients (New York Times)

Amazon forest ‘shaped by pre-Columbian indigenous peoples’ (BBC)

Evidence of agroforestry in the ancient Amazon (tywkiwdbi)

Archaeologists Have Discovered More Than 450 Large Geometrical Geoglyphs in the Amazonian Rainforest (Science News Journal)

Another example of humans transforming the landscape: An ancient oasis in China’s remote desert (BBC)

It’s built around the Turpan Water System, an underappreciated engineering marvel:

The system has wells, dams and underground canals built to store the water and control the amount of water flow. Vertical wells are dug at various points to tap into the groundwater flowing down sloping land from the source, the mountain runoff. The water is then channeled through underground canals dug from the bottom of one well to the next well and then to the desired destination, Turpan’s irrigation system. This irrigation system of special connected wells has been claimed to originate in Iran (e.g., the qanat system), to have originated indigenously, or to have been invented in other parts of China. Both historical and archaeological research convincingly point to the origins of this technology as arriving from more western regions along with indigenous innovations.

The Irish potato famine was caused by wealthy landlords who prized profit over people — and thousands starved (Raw Story). It was caused by replacing communal structures with capitalist markets, but we can’t acknowledge that.

The route that eventually became the Silk Road developed based on the movement of nomadic herders:

Our model shows that long-term strategies of mobility by highland nomadic herders structured enduring routes for seasonal migrations to summer pastures, which correspond significantly with the evolving geography of ‘Silk Road’ interaction across Asia’s mountains,” said Michael Frachetti, lead author of the study and an associate professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

Silk Road evolved as ‘grass-routes’ movement (

Eurocentric history focuses on Greece as the birthplace of democracy, but cultures in the Americas may have had a more democratic arrangement as well:

…Tlaxcallan is one of several premodern societies around the world that archaeologists believe were organized collectively, where rulers shared power and commoners had a say in the government that presided over their lives. These societies were not necessarily full democracies in which citizens cast votes, but they were radically different from the autocratic, inherited rule found—or assumed—in most early societies.

It wasn’t just Greece: Archaeologists find early democratic societies in the Americas (Science)

An anthropologist considers how humans invented numbers:

Numbers are this really simple invention. These words that reify concepts are a cognitive tool. But it’s so amazing to think about what they enable as a species. Without them we seem to struggle differentiating seven from eight consistently; with them we can send someone to the moon. All that can be traced back to someone, somewhere saying, “Hey, I have a hand of things here.” Without that first step, or without similar first steps made to invent numbers, you don’t get to those other steps. A lot of people think because math is so elaborate, and there are numbers that exist, they think these things are something you come to recognize. I don’t care how smart you are, if you don’t have numbers you’re not going to make that realization. In most cases the invention probably started with this ephemeral realization [that you have five fingers on one hand], but if they don’t ascribe a word to it, that realization just passes very quickly and dies with them. It doesn’t get passed on to the next generation.

How Humans Invented Numbers—And How Numbers Reshaped Our World (Smithsonian)

Was the apprenticeship system and the skills it inculcated critical in the rise of Europe and the Industrial Revolution?

Before the Industrial Revolution, almost all useful knowledge was tacit. The main mechanism through which tacit skills were transmitted across generations was apprenticeship, a relationship linking a skilled adult to a youngster whom he taught the trade. Apprentices spent most of their waking hours in the master’s workshop, where they learned from the master and more experienced apprentices and journeymen. As apprentices spent time in the shop, they gradually acquired the skills of the master, often through imitation and guided learning-by-doing…What we argue is that the institutions governing the intergenerational transmission mechanism were of central importance to the dissemination of best-practice techniques. The nature of the apprenticeship system based on personal contacts and mostly local networks was a central factor in the closing of gaps between best-practice and average-practice techniques. We argue that apprenticeship institutions in Europe led to faster dissemination of best-practice technical knowledge and contributed, ultimately, to Europe’s technological primacy.

Apprenticeship and the rise of Europe (Naked Capitalism)

Reddit consideration of why the continent of Africa is impoverished today: ELI5: Why is Africa, as a whole, such an impoverished continent?

Rather than hunter-gatherers being “old by age 30”, it seems like that is a more accurate description of people in modern, industrial societies:

The healthiest hearts in the world have been found in the Tsimane people in the forests of Bolivia, say researchers. Barely any Tsimane had signs of clogged up arteries – even well into old age – a study in the Lancet showed. “It’s an incredible population” with radically different diets and ways of living, said the researchers. They admit the rest of the world cannot revert to a hunter-gathering and early farming existence, but said there were lessons for all of us.

‘Healthiest hearts in the world’ found (BBC)

And, related, Anxious, depressed, distracted — what if the cure is just outside? (Grist)

A geomagnetic spike hit the ancient kingdom of Judah in ancient times. If this were to happen again today, the electrical grid could be a smoking ruin.

Earth’s geomagnetic field wraps the planet in a protective layer of energy, shielding us from solar winds and high-energy particles from space. But it’s also poorly understood, subject to weird reversals, polar wandering, and rapidly changing intensities. Now a chance discovery from an archaeological dig near Jerusalem has given scientists a glimpse of how intense the magnetic field can get—and the news isn’t good for a world that depends on electrical grids and high-tech devices.

Astonishing geomagnetic spike hit the ancient kingdom of Judah (ars Technica)

Sometimes it takes new technology a while to catch on:

By 1907, only 8 percent of Americans lived in homes served by electricity nationwide. It was not dispersed super swiftly because the infrastructure had to be built. Once that was in place, the question was whether you could you afford it. For every new technology, people have to be persuaded that it’s important. I think the thing that made them really want electricity was the radio, which didn’t become ubiquitous until the 1920s and ‘30s.

How the war of the currents brought power to cities (CityLab)

And also: How the world’s first cities got started (CityLab). Similar thesis to what I wrote about the origins of cities.

Before there was Jesus, there was Apollonius of Tyana.

Climate change and the rise and fall of civilizations (NASA)

Is the idea that all scientific inquiry in the Middle Ages was squashed by the all-powerful Catholic Church just a myth that need to be laid to rest?:

About once every 3-4 months on forums like we get some discussion where someone invokes the old “Conflict Thesis”. That evolves into the usual ritual kicking of the Middle Ages as a benighted intellectual wasteland where humanity was shackled to superstition and oppressed by cackling minions of the Evil Old Catholic Church. The hoary standards are brought out on cue. Giordiano Bruno is presented as a wise and noble martyr for science instead of the irritating mystical New Age kook he actually was. Hypatia is presented as another such martyr and the mythical Christian destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria is spoken of in hushed tones, despite both these ideas being totally untrue. The Galileo Affair is ushered in as evidence of a brave scientist standing up to the unscientific obscurantism of the Church, despite that case being as much about science as it was about Scripture.

It’s not hard to kick this nonsense to pieces, especially since the people presenting it know next to nothing about history and have simply picked up these strange ideas from websites and popular books. The assertions collapse as soon as you hit them with hard evidence. I love to totally stump these propagators by asking them to present me with the name of one – just one – scientist burned, persecuted, or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any. They usually try to crowbar Galileo back into the Middle Ages, which is amusing considering he was a contemporary of Descartes. When asked why they have failed to produce any such scientists given the Church was apparently so busily oppressing them, they often resort to claiming that the Evil Old Church did such a good job of oppression that everyone was too scared to practice science. By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists – like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa – and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents usually scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.

The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews “God’s Philosophers” (Strange Notions)

Is it possible that ancient people saw the world very differently than we do?:

Homer’s descriptions of color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, taken literally, paint an almost psychedelic landscape: in addition to the sea, sheep were also the color of wine; honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze… Not only was Homer’s palette limited to only five colors (metallics, black, white, yellow-green, and red), but a prominent philosopher even centuries later, Empedocles, believed that all color was limited to four categories: white/light, dark/black, red, and yellow…

It turns out that the appearance of color in ancient texts, while also reasonably paralleling the frequency of colors that can be found in nature (blue and purple are very rare, red is quite frequent, and greens and browns are everywhere), tends to happen in the same sequence regardless of civilization: red : ochre : green : violet : yellow—and eventually, at least with the Egyptians and Byzantines, blue.

Blue certainly existed in the world, even if it was rare, and the Greeks must have stumbled across it occasionally even if they didn’t name it. But the thing is, if we don’t have a word for something, it turns out that to our perception—which becomes our construction of the universe—it might as well not exist. Specifically, neuroscience suggests that it might not just be “good or bad” for which “thinking makes it so,” but quite a lot of what we perceive.

The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World (Clarke’s World)

And, related, non-Western “traditional” peoples’ perception is different than our own:

One explanation for their astonishing focus may come from the cattle rearing itself. Identifying each cow’s markings was apparently essential for their daily life – and this practice may perhaps train the eye with a focus and attention that was lacking in all modern societies. “I think that does come from their traditional lives – the powers to concentrate,” says Davidoff. But it could also be that modern life itself makes us more easily distracted by our surroundings. And it is for this reason that Opuwo is so interesting, as younger generations slowly migrate to the shanty villages on the edge of the small town…

To discover how this move might influence the Himba’s psychology, Davidoff’s team compared Himba migrants to the small town, with those still living the traditional lifestyle. As they had expected, the Himba who had spent years living on Opuwo were less focused on the local details than those living in the countryside. But you didn’t need to have spent your whole life in the town for it to have an effect; the team found that even very short day trips to Opuwo seemed to have had a lasting impact their perception, making them less focused on differences in the local details (and more conscious of the overall shape) when comparing two abstract figures, for instance. Needless to say, the influence was much greater for those who lived in the town – but it was still present even for the Himba who had only visited a couple of times. “There does seem to be a ‘dose effect’ – the more of it you have, the greater the effect becomes,” says Davidoff.

The astonishing focus of Namibia’s Nomads (BBC)

Real Solutions

In the Netherlands, an elder care facility also acts as a dorm, bringing old and young people together to their mutual benefit: The Nursing Home That’s Also a Dorm (CityLab)

Related: The Dutch prison crisis: A shortage of prisoners (BBC) Compare to the U.S.

Is depression an evolved response that actually has a beneficial purpose?

Some psychologists, however, have argued that depression is not a dysfunction at all, but an evolved mechanism designed to achieve a particular set of benefits. I’ve certainly considered whether it’s done that for me, both in high school and later in life. If they’re right, it means that our thinking about depression needs an intervention too.

Does depression have an evolutionary purpose (Nautilus)

Planners hope more benches in urban centres will help build friendlier cities: ‘Street seats’ aim to revolutionise cities through sitting (BBC)

Forget shorter showers; individual solutions won’t save the planet:

As narrator Jordan Brown says, no matter what environmental problem you consider, whether it’s the water crisis, the waste crisis, the emissions crisis, you name it, our personal actions account for very little of what’s going wrong. The vast majority of the problems can be traced back to the industrial economy, which consumes most of the water, generates most of the plastic waste, creates the most emissions, and so on and so forth.

What we do as individuals, he argues, does almost nothing to change the big picture. For example, municipal household waste accounts for only 3 percent of waste in the United States, so what’s the point of encouraging people to go zero waste at home?

Brown identifies four problems with perceiving simple living as a political act.
1) It is based on the notion that humans inevitably harm their land base. This fails to acknowledge that humans can help the Earth.
2) It incorrectly assigns blame to the individual, instead of targeting those who wield power within the industrial system – and the system itself.
3) It accepts capitalism’s redefinition of us as consumers, rather than citizens. We reduce our potential forms of resistance to ‘consuming vs. not consuming,’ despite there being far broader resistance tactics available to us.
4) The endpoint of logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide. If every act within our economy is destructive, and we want to stop this destruction, then the planet would be better off with us dead.
Personal solutions can’t save the planet

Personal solutions can’t save the planet (Treehugger)

Spain’s abandoned coal belt is trying to survive through innovation rather than going back to the past:

…Javi Fernandez’s small house is surrounded by edible plants. Among traditional winter crops grown in this area, like verza, a kind of cabbage, there’s also mustard, Jerusalem artichokes, and shiitake mushrooms. It’s a small patch of bounty amid miles of empty, rolling hills.

Rather than study engineering to work in the coal mines like both his father and grandfather, Mr Fernandez studied agriculture in Cuba. “I couldn’t afford to go to a paying university so I studied for free at the ISCA University, in San Jose de las Lajas,” he beams, digging through the 400 sq m (4,300 sq ft) of artichokes he has planted.

Will Spain’s coal belt survive through online barter? (BBC)

Paris compost urinals open near Gare de Lyon station (BBC)

How food waste can feed the hungry, train the jobless and fight loneliness too (Treehugger)

The food waste fighter (BBC)

On a chilly summer’s night in the centre of Copenhagen, a crowd gathers around the entrance of a restaurant called Dalle Valle. It’s 22:30 and the dinner buffet is winding up and the kitchens are about to close. But these people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are here for the food that the diners inside didn’t want.

Dalle Valle is one of hundreds of restaurants and cafes listed in an app called Too Good To Go, which lets you order takeaway food that would otherwise be thrown away, for knock-down prices. It’s an example of many social initiatives set up in the last few years to address the growing problem of food waste. And in Denmark, they are leading the world.

The country where unwanted food is selling out (BBC)

Our Society Doesn’t Work

Spending large amounts of time indoors under artificial light and staring at computer screens has helped produce a “myopia epidemic” with as many as 90 per cent of people in some parts of the world needing glasses. Industrial food production has also turned primates’ taste for sugar — which evolved to persuade us to gorge on healthy fruit when it was ripe — into one of the main causes of the soaring rates of obesity in the Western world. And our sense of smell is under attack from air pollution, producing an array of different effects, including depression and anxiety.

‘Mismatch’ between the way our senses evolved and modern world is making us ill, experts warn (Independent)

The Basic Psychological Structure of Our Society Does Not Work (Ian Welsh)

Is the dark really making me sad? Writing this from Milwaukee in March, most definitely, yes.

Old, but relevant: Is Civilization A Bad Idea? (NPR)

What does it mean to be human? (Mosaic Science) Related: Neanderthals may have medicated with penicillin and painkillers:

Neanderthals living in prehistoric Belgium enjoyed their meat – but the Neanderthals who lived in what is now northern Spain seem to have survived on an almost exclusively vegetarian diet. This is according to new DNA analysis that also suggests sick Neanderthals could self-medicate with naturally occurring painkillers and antibiotics, and that they shared mouth microbiomes with humans – perhaps exchanged by kissing.

Neanderthals may have medicated with penicillin and painkillers (New Scientist)


A beautiful rammed earth house in China based on vernacular forms: Modern rammed earth home echoes region’s natural cave dwellings (Treehugger) Also, this Australian home uses tent fabrics to meld inside and outside: Modern Australian tent house seamlessly brings nature inside (Treehugger)

Architecture’s forgotten drawing: the section:

With their Manual of Section, the three founding partners of LTL architects engage with section as an essential tool of architectural design, and let’s admit it, this reading might change your mind on the topic. For the co-authors, “thinking and designing through section requires the building of a discourse about section, recognizing it as a site of intervention.” Perhaps, indeed, we need to understand the capabilities of section drawings both to use them more efficiently and to enjoy doing so.

Studying the “Manual of Section”: Architecture’s Most Intriguing Drawing (ArchDaily)

Interesting article on digital techniques and traditional architecture, probably of interest mainly to architects/engineers: Modern Design from Historical Perspective (AUGI)

Could these techniques give a rebirth to more traditional forms/ornamentation and away from arbitrary ad-hoc form-finding by “starchitects” held together by space-age technology? Related:

Professor Alan Short of the University of Cambridge has published a book advocating for the revival of 19th-century architectural ideas to address the crippling energy use of modern skyscrapers. The Recovery of Natural Environments in Architecture proposes an end to the architectural fetish for glass, steel, and air conditioning, instead drawing inspiration from forgotten techniques in naturally ventilated buildings of the 1800s. The book is a culmination of 30 years’ research and design by Prof. Short and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge.

In his book, Prof. Short highlights a developed, sophisticated science of natural ventilation used in the 19th-century, exemplified by the first Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. After three years digitally modeling the hospital, Prof. Short and his team noted that ventilation performance in the building was equivalent to a modern-day computer-controlled operating theater. During the 19th-century, public anxiety over toxic air led to the development of public buildings devoted to exceptional air quality, a mindset which Prof. Short argues has been lost in the computer-controlled ventilation of modern skyscrapers.

New Book Calls for an End to Our Fetish for Conditioned Skyscrapers (archdaily)

A gallery of round architectural plans. Related, Round runways could save a lot of land, reduce fuel consumption and cut noise (Treehugger)

The Other Fictitious Commodities

One of Karl Polanyi’s central insights concerns the existence of “fictitious commodities,” which are land, labor and capital.

Land and labor are things that, prior to the Great Transformation, were part-and-parcel of the fabric of society and not merely chattel to be bought and sold in impersonal markets. Industrial capitalism determined these should be distributed by markets rather than by traditional means, and central governments proceeded to create these markets by destroying alternative social structures. Capital was deliberately brought about through deliberate state action by monetizing these items, establishing markets for them, and creating centralized financial systems and regulations to facilitate these markets.

The problem is that, as Polanyi points out, these things are decidedly NOT commodities. They are the very fabric of society itself. They are “fictitious” because they are not objects produced in order to be bought and sold—they have no basis in production or sale other than their ability to be sold on the market. Unlike true commodities, they cannot go unsold; absent some other subsidy, workers must work in order to survive, and everybody needs land to live on. Land, for example, is theoretically bought and sold in “free” markets, yet the supply of this “commodity” is inherently limited–we cannot create more of it.

This also demonstrates the impossibility of having a “pure” market society. Markets are subject to all sort of irrationality such as panics and bubbles, despite the fact that economics textbooks invariably depict markets as idealized systems automatically heading towards equilibrium, even though such things exist nowhere in the actual world we inhabit.

Ironically, even though labor is described as a commodity sold in the “labor market,” conventional (neoclassical) economists insist that supply and demand play no role whatsoever in these markets! So, for example, increasing the supply of workers by, say, massive amounts immigrant labor, is said to have no effect whatsoever on domestic wages. Neither does the addition of millions of additional workers via globalization. Rather, according to economists, in this “market” everyone simply gets what they produce, no more and no less!

Earlier, I cited arguments pointing out that what made social democracies such as Northern Europe much more functional societies was not socialism per se, but the decommodification of land and labor. Government policies decouple both of these things from existing in “pure” markets to some extent, which leads to better social outcomes:

Which political system does happiness economics support? (Aeon)

But the point I want to make is that land, labor and capital are not the only fictitious commodities. These were the major ones in 1944 when Polanyi wrote his book. But, if he were writing today, I’m sure he would include three other fictitious commodities that are having a massive impact on our economy today.

The three other fictitious commodities are: HEALTH CARE, EDUCATION, and NATURAL RESOURCES.

Several things tie these items together. For one, your need for these “commodities” has nothing to do with your ability to pay. Your desire for these commodities has nothing to do with your preferences. Your information about these commodities and options for purchasing them are highly restricted and circumscribed. Also, you cannot choose NOT to purchase these commodities, at least not without severe and deleterious consequences to your health and income prospects. In other words, consumer choice does not enter into the choice whether or not to buy them. As such, it makes no sense to treat these as true commodities distributed in “free and open” price-fixing markets. Yet, for reasons of capitalist ideology, we must consistently pretend that they can be and are so delivered.

1.) Health care. That this is a “fictitious commodity” should be obvious to anyone with half a brain. Health care is not, nor can it be, a “product” produced for sale in a market and distributed by impersonal forces of supply and demand. The idea of using markets to distribute health care is so bizarre as to beggar belief.

In fact, this fact is obvious to the rest of the world outside of the United States, so, it is a strange thing to have to even argue against health care being a market commodity, because only Americans believe it. Recall Polanyi’s description of a price-fixing market:

“a site, physically present or available goods, a supply crowd, a demand crowd, custom or law and equivalencies…Whenever the market elements combine to form a supply-demand-price mechanism, we speak of price-making markets…”

That doesn’t sound much like the health care market does it? No one wakes up in the morning one day and decides to go out and buy some health care. They come down with a fucking disease! They need treatment, sometimes urgently. What they have wrong with them has nothing to do with their capacity to pay. They have no expertise or knowledge with which to evaluate the health care “product” (much less the “perfect knowledge” posited by neoclassical economic theory). They are dependent on outside experts. There may even be traumatic injury involved such as a car accident (and there frequently is). Are victims of a car crash supposed to be “rational consumers of health care services?”

Also, everyone has a physical body, so everyone needs health care. On the other hand, most consumer goods are voluntary purchases. You cannot choose not to need health care; whether you need it or not has nothing to do with your actions. Yes, you can take care of yourself, but even Olympic athletes have health care issues that require treatment, from asthma to appendicitis. In traditional price-fixing markets, purchasing the commodity, from a Persian rug to a silk scarf, was a choice, not a requirement to go on living.

Advertising for hospitals and doctors abounds, and yet most people have extremely limited choices for where they can go to get treatment and which doctors they can visit (e.g. in-network and out-of-network). How can anyone honestly claim that “competition” in this system makes it more efficient? Getting any sort of clear pricing for medical services is next to impossible; you only know how much it costs when the (enormous) bill shows up in your mailbox. And the recent highly-publicized hiking of drug prices by predatory capitalists surely proves that supply and demand has little to do with drug pricing. After all, it’s not like you have much of a “choice” whether or not to purchase these products, especially if no generic is available. It’s more like a hostage racket than a “free” market.

Even with the completely “transparent” pricing desired by libertarians, it’s difficult to believe that the “invisible hand” left alone will perfectly align adequate supply with demand, especially with an aging population. Typically you need to purchase most health care at the end of life when your purchasing power is at its low ebb. Even with “Chemo-While-U-Wait” shops on every streetcorner as envisioned by libertarians, there is a price below which health care services will not fall. Should we just deny them to people then? Ron Paul acolytes may applaud this idea, but most non-sociopaths will probably not simply accept sitting by helplessly and watching grandma slowly die from cancer because she cannot afford to pay the corner clinic on her limited income.

Medical costs are currently a significant source of personal bankruptcy. It’s difficult to imagine people voluntarily bankrupting themselves through voluntarily purchases of any given commodity, even automobiles. That should be another indication that health care is no ordinary “product.”

Moreover, what you typically purchase is not even health care, but health insurance, which is redistributive by its very nature. And under the current system in the U.S., you are forced by law to buy this “product.” I wonder how that comports with the ideology of “free” markets. A single pool of people is by nature more efficient than multiple competing ones, which is why all other counties use a single-payer health system as their base.

It seems like we just need to constantly maintain this fiction that there is even a market in healthcare at all. In fact, we already intervene in this market all over the place, from health care for veterans to subsidies for the poor. The supposed “free” market in health care is entirely a creation of government regulations, absent which there would not even be a “market” for health care at all.

I need not belabor this point. Here is an excellent summary of many of the reasons why health care is not a commodity:

Health – A Market Like No Other (Whistling in the Wind)

2.) Education. In the United States, education has become a commodity to be sold by educational institutions and bought by “consumers,” typically by going heavily into debt. Even supposedly “not-for-profit” institutions have become essentially predatory money-making operations. And they are complemented by a vast for-profit education industry expressly designed to prey upon the poor and the desperate who are trying to further their skills to compete in an increasingly winner-take-all global economy.

Now, like labor markets described above, education has another quirk that makes them different from markets determined exclusively by supply and demand. What we’ve seen is this: as demand for the product has increased exponentially, the price of the “commodity” has not fallen, but has risen into the stratosphere at multiple times the rate of inflation! And it shows no signs of slowing down.

In modern industrial economies, an educated workforce is recognized as a social necessity by most people. At one point, even basic literacy and numeracy were rare in the population when farming was still the most common type of labor. To that end, public provisioning of education and universal access were once recognized as the foundation for any prosperous society beginning in the nineteenth century (and earlier in some places). Restricting education only to the children of rich elites was recognized as obviously contrary to American ideals of meritocratic individualism, not to mention economic suicide.

Sometime in the post-war period, this changed, especially in the United States. Employers started using collage as a lazy weeding program for new hires, and a Bachelor’s degree became simply “the new high school diploma.” At the same time, this was accompanied not by an expansion of support for post-secondary education, but a withdrawal of support and government disinvestment in educational systems across the board. Under neoliberalism, the burden of paying for higher education was placed on the workers themselves, and college was transformed into a (highly risky) “investment” in ones future which was required to produce a positive return (ROI). Colleges began to compete against one another in markets, offering luxurious amenities and spending enormous sums to hire “celebrity” professors, as well as purchasing advertising which did not help educate a single student.

Because you need to go to school for your labor to be worth something anymore, this “commodity” is not really a choice, but a requirement. So, for example, if you want to be an engineer, well then, you have to get an engineering degree. Only certain institutions are even allowed to offer this “product” (the accredited degree). These institutions are widely separated in geographical space—they are only located in certain places, meaning access is highly restrictive.

Furthermore, your desire and aptitude to be an engineer has nothing do with how much money you happen to have in the bank. That is, you cannot choose NOT to purchase this product and still be an engineer. Rather than a single product at the point-of-sale, a degree requires you to labor for at least four years to acquire these skills (making it very different than, say, buying a house), and this is typically BEFORE you have any significant income! In fact, you need to purchase this “product” in order to the HAVE any significant income! Often times, the “price” (i.e. tuition) rises dramatically during those four years, and there is nothing you can do about it. And colleges can create sudden and arbitrary rules to make you pay more for the “product” such as requiring more credits for no valid reason other than the fact that they can (this actually happened at my architecture school–they upped the credit requirements for graduation from 48 to 60 simply because they could). What other kind of “commodity” is that true of? Even land and houses have a one-time negotiated purchase price which is known to all parties at the time of sale!

And what else has the “market-centric” approach to education led to in the United States? One effect is schools building grandiose architectural follies designed by brand-name “starchitects” in order to “compete” with other institutions simply to attract a small slice of high-income tuition whales, many of whom come from overseas (even while Americans have less and less access to their own educational system). Americans happily train the world’s rich kids but abandon their own people to the wolves. And then there are the athletic departments taking over college campuses, leading to everything from millionaire sports coaches to multi-million-dollar stadiums, all paid for by heavily-indebted tuition donkeys. This is even while most classes are being taught by non-unionized adjuncts who are so poorly paid that they often must rely upon public assistance. Finally, there’s the administrative bloat and college presidents/provosts who get free palatial homes to live in, salaries in the high six/low seven-figures, and gilded pensions and benefits. How do any of these things help create and maintain an educated workforce?

Do we want only the children of rich parents to be able to be engineers? Or doctors? Or lawyers? Or architects? Or accountants? How is that consistent with our ideas of meritocracy? Right-wingers and conservatives like to retort that truly intelligent and talented people will always somehow find a way have their education paid for through grants/scholarships. etc.That is, money is not a barrier to educational access. Arbitrary and random “gifts” of money for the lucky few help them to uphold this argument, allowing them to maintain their just-world belief systems.

Two points about that fact: first, it is obviously false. But, even if it were true, it merely reinforces the point that education should not be a market commodity!

The fact is that these institutions are really tollbooths to the few remaining professions that pay a living wage anymore. As such, they are able to charge whatever they want, and there will be people willing to pay it. And that means that the idea of a market mechanism being applicable here is just as ridiculous and outrageous as with health care! Education is not a “product”; it is vocational training, and most societies traditionally have had other effective ways to train the skilled labor they needed which did not rely on predatory markets. Many still do today. In reality, higher education in the U.S. seems less like a marketable product and more like a twenty-first century version of indentured servitude. And educational support is under assault worldwide.

3. Natural Resources. Obviously, forests, rivers, farmland and mineral deposits–to name just a few examples–are not produced expressly for sale. They are simply there. Neoliberal economics wants to recast all of nature as “ecosystem services” to be bought and sold in price-fixing markets for ideological reasons. In fact, there are even efforts to create highly artificial markets in carbon via “cap and trade” schemes. Under the Neoliberal ideology, only markets–and not, for example, common resource ownership or rationing–can adequately deal with these scarce natural resources.

[Payments for ecological/environmental services] is a form of commodification, of creating new things out of nature which can be sold. The commodities created thus are ‘fictitious commodities’. Real commodities are discrete entities (coffee beans, timber or diamonds), that are produced to be sold. In contrast commodities like land, money and labour are fictitious, they are not produced specifically to be sold, and they do not physically change hands when sold. What are exchanged are title deeds (with respect to land) or agreements to access time (with respect to labour) in return for notes (bank or promissory) which promise to pay the bearer funds, or simply electronic numbers in bank accounts (with respect to money). Markets in such commodities require complicated social and political exercises to subdivide landscapes into titled parcels, create the banking and state apparatus that allows money to be trusted, and create labour pools and skills.

The enthusiasts for PES recognize the social engineering that fictitious commodities require determining how much carbon, or water, is created by particular land covers, who can own them and how they might be exchanged requires the construction of complex apparatuses for measuring, valuing and titling…They require a demand for the new products to be created. With such commodities created, and with markets established for their exchange and circulation, considerable (trillion dollar) opportunities open up. Without the investments required socially and politically to free PES’ fictitious commodities from their social and ecological contexts, huge potential markets are lost.

…The creation of fictitious commodities of land and labour does not alter the fact that the places and people who provide them still have an entirely separate existence, beyond their commodity form.This means that what markets do to land and labour can have profound social and ecological consequences. Markets may demand homes or nature reserves be surrendered for a mine but the result will be painful. Labour may be laid off in a recession, but the psychological consequences to individuals and families are immense. As Polanyi observed, ‘to allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment… would result in the demolition of society’. So it may be with the carbon, water and other services promoted in PES. The commodities thus created and exchanged cannot be separated from their social and ecological contexts. Forests may only be valued for their carbon, but they cannot be reduced only to their carbon. Critics note that markets have a tendency to forget the social and ecological contexts of their commodities. The consequences of such commodity fetishism are potentially considerable for PES. How markets behave with respect to the commodities they peddle depends very much on the social structures in which they are embedded. This is why the performance of actually existing PES schemes matters so much.

Ecosystem services and fictitious commodities (PDF)

What’s more, much like land, we cannot increase the production of these commodities. Renewable resources like forests can theoretically be regenerated, but not in the time frame that is acceptable to the quarterly balance sheets of finance capitalism. The ultimate stock of non-renewable resources such as petroleum and minerals can only go in one direction—down. This is deceptive, since price-fixing markets only rely on the flow of that particular resource at a specific point in time. The price of oil is determined not by how much oil there is (the stock), but how much is available to the market right now (the flow). In fact, for many such commodities, high prices provide an incentive to increase the extraction of the non-renewable resource, ensuring that it is drawn down even faster. The ultimate amount of the resource has no bearing until it is exhausted (e.g. rhino horns and elephant tusks).

The Markets’ Greatest Failure (Whistling in the Wind)

The consequences for the natural world and the ecosystem are devastating. You cannot have a market without a society, and yet market mechanisms are literally destroying the natural resources without which the human life-support system could not exist. Yet, in the past, common-pool resources were often collectively managed and highly regulated. However, free-market capitalist ideology forbids us from even considering these options.


These other three “fictitious commodities”—especially health care and education—are more relevant than ever before in our current economic situation, because it is these things which are currently destroying the American quality of life. By contrast, actual commodities are cheaper than ever before! In fact, actual commodities—not fictitious ones—have become so cheap as to be practically free. Dollar Stores and Wal-marts are filled with cheap, superabundant (albeit shoddy) goods. Even high-tech electronics can be had at astonishingly low prices. Technology that would be considered miraculous even a decade ago can be purchased with the equivalent of a few days’ salary. Food is also remarkably cheap today, although arguably, like durable goods, much of it is of inferior quality. Still, even quality foods can be purchased for what have historically been low prices, if one knows where to look.

Many electronics-based products have declined in price. According to Yahoo finance the following reductions have occurred: televisions (down 77.9 percent); computers (down 88.3 percent); audio equipment (down 39.3 percent); and videocassettes, video discs and other media, including rentals (down 20.4 percent). Over the last decade they also document a 6.6 percent drop in the price of new cars and trucks, 44.4 percent drop in the price of toys, 11 percent drop in clothes, and the cost of a timepiece fell 6.2 percent. Reducing prices result in individuals having greater income to spend on other items, which from a purely consumption standpoint increases their welfare. In these cases the “magic of the market” actually works to create greater consumption and prosperity. Polanyi conceded that even though commodification of labor imposed severe cultural and social costs to workers and their families, it also contributed to economic “improvement” and growth.

Escaping the Polanyi matrix: the impact of fictitious commodities: money, land, and labor on consumer welfare (PDF)

In fact, many goods need to be made artificially scarce in order to be turned into marketable commodities. I’m referring to what economists like to call “non-rival, non-excludable” goods—easily reproducible technologies that can be duplicated and distributed at no marginal cost, such as software, books, movies and music. And it is these “commodities” which are forming an ever-larger and more important share of our economy! They can only be turned into commodities at the cost of massive central-state enforcement; for example, spying on peoples’ home computers and draconian copyright legislation. Many such goods are already provided “free-of-charge” (e.g. Google and Facebook) but paid for by highly intrusive and wasteful advertising that people are constantly trying to avoid (adblockers, etc.), or by massive data gathering which violates peoples’ privacy with the end-goal of even more intrusive marketing tactics to manipulate us (and potentially political repression to boot).

In fact, it is the inexpensiveness of such items that leads defenders of the status quo to insist that everything is better than ever. Everybody has cell phones! You can look up anything you want on Google! Even the poor are fat!!! I’m sure you’ve heard these arguments before.

But this ignores the crux of the problem—pretending that the fictitious commodities should be distributed by markets in the first place. More and more of our economy consists of these fictitious commodities. In fact, it’s so common we even have a term for it–the “Eds and Meds” economy. Health care and education employ and ever-greater share of our workforce. Add in digital goods which are made artificially scarce, and it appears that much of our twenty-first century economy is not centered around the production of actual goods and servies at all (which are practically free), but instead forcing these fictitious commodities to somehow behave like actual commodities. To this end, we are creating artificial “pretend” markets which are highly inefficient and easily gamed just to maintain this fiction!

The real problems Americans face today are with these fictitious commodities. High housing costs are destroying Americans’ budgets. The costs of living in virtually any urban areas are simply unaffordable given what salaries are. Education costs have turned us into debt serfs. Millions of Americans have inadequate health care, and many people are literally dying because of it. Drug costs are eating into Americans’ paychecks. And overall jobs are going away thanks to automation and outsourcing, preventing many Americans from even earning any salary by selling their labor—workforce participation continues to decline with every passing year.

Low-income Americans can no longer afford rent, food, and transportation (VOX)

In order to solve the fundamental problems with our economy, we need to come to terms with these fictitious commodities. The first step might be to acknowledge that they are fictitious commodities in the first place. One aspect of the problem, I would argue, is that we are wedded to market mechanisms when we should ideally be moving beyond the market. Too bad the “science” of economics won’t let us even consider this. This means that we need to look elsewhere for answers.