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Alternatives

What then, are the alternatives to market capitalism?

Here are four larger categories of variants.

The Straw Doll

There are few things that make me check out as quickly and saltily from a political discussion as someone seriously proposing “planned economy”, Soviet style.

Thanks, I hate it.

Bakunin thinks it sucks, Marx thinks it sucks, I think it sucks.

This is the huge bogeyman that the right wing likes use to scare people back into capitalism.

Now, I wouldn’t go that far, since I think market capitalism is even worse. Market capitalism has starved as many people to death as “planned economy” regimes have, and is on track to burn the entire world. “Planned economy” is just the second worst.

To explain why it sucks so much, I want to use analogies from programming or from game design or even from ontology. Skip ahead to what applies to you and your own field.

For programmers, it should be pretty clear why you’d rather have an algorithm with emergent properties than to try to reverse-engineer a specific outcome. I get that it’s an interesting and fun problem for you eggheads to try to solve (creating a dependency directed acyclic graph from prerequisites) but it’s just a very vulnerable and fragile system. Also, you have two problems: you need to calculate the ideal outcome that you can reach from what you have, as well as calculate an optimal route to get there. Travelling salesman, pretty much. NP-hard.

For game designers, you also know the value of emergent properties and being able to deal with unforeseen obstacles and be able create something beyond what you can predict.

For Magic players, imagine the difference between planeswalkers and sagas. If you have a History of Benalia and all your knights die before your third chapter, you get zilch. Now imagine your entire deck worked that way. Just obliviously churning out stuff without taking into account what could go wrong with the plan. Sometimes these decks are called “being on the goldfish plan”; there are builds of mill that are based on that. You don’t interact with what your opponent is doing at all, just jam and hope that there’s no wrenches.

For ontologists, “planned economy” is pretty much the creationism of economics. Teleology style. Instead of living at the edge of what’s possible, adapting, taking what works and building on it… “plan” economists are hoping to end up with a specific pre-set goal. They want to build a Boeing 747 from a junkyard; they want to get Shakespeare out of monkey-typing.

I get how the idea of a “planned economy” is a pretty natural thing for people to go to, inuitively.

People in the web dev world know what I mean; just as we had to drag people kicking and screaming from having pixel control over their web pages (using huge image maps or Flash in the bad old 90s days) into more reflowy, semantics-first style setups.

“Planned economies” can go wrong during the planning stage (you messed up and just made a really bad plan) or during the execution stage (something happened that your plan can’t deal with).

For me, one of the most convincing arguments against planned economy was not one of its failures, but when it succeeded—by workers trading for the necessary screws and bolts that they needed to do their work on the black market. It succeeded by not being used, by being sidestepped. Ergo it sucks.

Market Socialism

This one is simple.

Worker-owned cooperatives that trade with each other on a market.

That’s it. That’s the whole plan.

It’s basically market economics with many of its drawbacks:

It does address a huge issue with capitalism:
Exploitation.

It lets you own a piece of the grueling nine-to-five that you’re bleeding to death for, and that’s not nothing. That can actually feel meaningful.

A big upside of this track is that it’s somewhat compatible with the other systems and with present-day market capitalism. This means that it can be implemented piecemeal wherever it make sense and I think that’s awesome.

Support worker-owned cooperatives!

The Small Nudge

This is the grown-up, drab, suits-and-folders alternative. Social democracy, basically.

For the purposes of this article, I’m taking a very broad view of this category, including some systems that would deem them selves as mutually incompatible rival systems. I’m including MMT, Keynes, everything else that uses some market capitalism layers and some socialized layers to act as buffer for the vagaries of the invisible klutz.

The upside here is that we’re pretty much there. This is defacto the way a lot of the world is run outside of completely wack laissez-faire zones.

I sometimes feel that this track is one of our best hopes vs climate change. Kyoto Agreement, Paris Agreement… hopefully the states can address climate change faster than a bunch of CrimethInc hippies can.

They’re not, though, not meaningfully. Policy makers do need to sober up because the clock is ticking. They need to seriously address climate-related externalities by taxing or even banning them. Cap&trade has proven itself to be a cruel and insufficient joke.

The horrible reality of this track is that politicians don’t optimize to get good at making useful policy that benefit humanity. They optimize to get votes. We have bad actors like Bolsonaro (or the entire GOP) that are out to destroy our planet in order to get buried with a few extra coins on each eye.

Just like externalities, exploitation is also an issue that could be addressed by this track but historically hasn’t really been. Even in the Social Democrat Scandinavia of yore, the “people’s stick” was whacking pretty heavily. Then state-owned firms (like the phone company) were at least as hierarchical, both in terms of labor relations, sexism, and other issues, as any commercial corporation.

The Wide Open Canvas

This is my fave. The wonderful misc drawer of utopias and sundry.

We’re learning how to make systems, and how to make systems that makes systems. We are harnessing evolutionary algorithms and neural networks.

The purpose of any economic system throughout history is to allocate tasks and resources. There just has to be better ways to do that than market capitalism.

Throughout the 20th century, humanity has been playing around in some new fields all related to making systems. Game design, programming, network topology, protocol design. There are emergent systems being designed and implemented every day.

We can make something that can gradually replace capitalism (like how it, via mercantilism, replaced feudalism before it), bootstrap style, or we can something that requires a bit of a bigger leap. It could be so awesome.

Of course, the right wing is a huge issue. They want to freeze our doomed vessel in amber, never mind the malström that the entire clump is heading towards, and revel in their riches.

Update

Optopia Zine wrote in, suggesting a gift economy.

Yes, we can imagine economic systems that are not based on a foundation of quid pro quo. Super into it.♥
I’ve previously written about the benefits of gift economies in a digital context and stepping stones to get there.

I’m eager to see protocol proposals that are more detailed in exactly how these paid-forward resources are gonna get allocated.