Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Living on the commons

In my earlier blog posts, I have demonstrated the problems with the consumer capitalist system. Namely, that everyone in it must enter into monetary relations where one alienatingly functions alternately as a john or a prostitute, where wealth inequality increases as the rentiers get richer and the renters get poorer, and where the planet gets wrecked - all in a wash of pro-consumer propaganda that leaves little room for imagination. In this blog, I'll work through a thought experiment to investigate alternative ways of being.

in the book the Republic by Plato, Socrates asks some people he meets to give a definition of justice. Socrates in turn finds weaknesses in the various definitions and refutes them. Next, Thrasymachus provides a definition of justice as "Justice is what the powerful say justice is, so as to advantage themselves". Socrates stumbles and can't refute this. Socrates also can't come up with a better alternative definition, so he spends the rest of the Republic describing an ideal society that is just to its core on the basis of its design.

So while today, the exorbitantly wealthy neoliberal proponents with their ability to influence governments may be taking Thrasymachus' definition of justice to heart and molding a society that suits them, let's see through their unequal consumer-capitalist world to a truly a just society. Let's look at society where collaboration rather than competition determines relations, the obsession with jobs dropped, the delusion of exponential growth on a finite planet given up, and where equality and harmony with nature are highly valued.

When examining societies, a key feature to look for is the technologies used. Technologies in our modern neoliberal have two key features: They are on a scale that is outside the control of an individual or small group and require massive bureaucratic organization requiring a rigid division of labour to produce, and they are unsustainable and deleterious to the planet. A just and harmonious society cannot have such technologies. All technologies in the new society must be able to be created, repaired, and run by the individual members of the society or in small groups or guilds, the way cottage industries were at the start of the industrial revolution.

The technologies available for the new society are therefore much reduced from the present system. To avoid excessive labour, the number of technologies should be kept at a minimum. To select the technologies to be used, the fundamental needs of the society should be examined. For example, food, clothing, and basic medical supplies such as disinfectant. Food technologies would be basic, seed saving, basic farming implements, organic growing techniques focusing on encouraging beneficial insects to inhabit the area to eliminate pesticide requirements, and recycling nutrients to replenish the soil. As for clothing, the growing of flax, cotton, or raising wool in an ecological sustainable way, and extracting, refining, and weaving all with technologies that can be made by the community itself, such as a wooden loom. I'll examine making disinfectant as a special case.

The creation of a chemical plant would require a large capital investment, an army of unemployed looking for work, human resource department, bosses, a regimented education system focusing on job skills rather than human flourishing, lots of time spent apart from family, mind-numbing 24-hour shift work to keep the plant running to justify the investment and enrich the investors, marketing, and long-distance distribution. As all of the above are inimical to a just and harmonious society, something smaller scale must be considered. After reviewing the list of antiseptics and their production methods and raw materials, it appears ethanol may be the best option, so let's examine how to make it on a human scale, as an example of analyzing and selecting a reasonable technology.

There are likely several methods of chemically synthesizing ethanol, but the method of fermenting grains and distilling the result is best for a small-scale production. The grains used can be barley, oats, wheat, potatoes, or sugar beets. Critically, the starches in the grains must be cooked and saccharified by an amylaze enzyme. The enzyme can come from malted barley. Malting barley can be done on a small scale without the need of experts, following techniques developed during medieval times. The malted barely then used for the fermentation of an all-barley mash, or it is mixed in with another cooked grain, for instance potatoes, and left for a while so that the enzymes from the malted barley can act on the potatoes. The next step in the fermentation is the addition of yeast. In mass society, one would buy a yeast packet from a store. This seemingly simple act however includes a huge chain of labour and social relations based upon capitalist values that we are trying to avoid. So how could a society not using money get yeast? The answer is not so simple. Wild yeast could be collected from the air, but it would likely be contaminated with mold and bacteria. Even if the society could start off with a single packet of commercial yeast* it would be a challenge to maintain the strain as there would be no refrigeration. Storing some of the yeast dormant in a cool underground area, and culturing it out into many glass jars of nutrient solution would be feasible with a bit of practice. Back to the process - after the mash has been treated with the malt enzymes, some yeast is mixed in and a few days later the result is ready to be distilled. An airlock would be useful to prevent contamination during the latter stages of the fermentation. This could be made from glass - which requires an entire glass making process. You are probably wondering what the mash was cooked in and what it was fermented it. Cooking pots and banded wooden barrels require metal. Extracting ores (not usually located right near the surface of the earth) and refining them in a blast furnace, then shaping the metal is no small task. This in itself would require the efforts of a substantial number of people, but it could be done by worker organization without bosses or capitalist investors. The metal producing worker collective would need to be initially self-sufficient in their basic needs of food and clothing, and would then be free from financial pressures to exchange their advanced products without needing to resort to marketing schemes. The next required technology is the still, usually made of copper, requiring at least bronze age production techniques. Finally glass would be the ideal storage medium to avoid evaporation of the alcohol. 

The preceding example of alcohol production shows that technologies are interrelated and rely upon each other. The point to be emphasized is that the limitation of technology is shows that be generated by people freely working under their own direction without coercion, technologies whereby people do not become the tools of their tools (such as where constant maintenance is required), as well as the limitation against technologies requiring huge investments with long-term payouts that benefit a monied minority who don't do the actual work.

In my next post, I'll look at ways to reform the consumer-capitalist system to make it more liveable, in contrast to this post, which examines a way to escape entirely away from the system and start anew. For example, setting up a communal house in a neighbourhood where all food preparation would take place, so as to obviate the need for grocery stores or restaurants. The communal house would save food preparation labour, reduce food waste, and spare people from work at grocery stores and restaurants, where much of the time is spent waiting around doing nothing.

*The new society would not be starting ex nihilo, and even though it would have the goal of being self-sufficient and not dependent on the remnants of the capitalist world, it would initially collect a set of useful items and tools

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