Seeds Sprouting in the Rubble

In my first quarterly research paper for the Center for a Stateless Society (C45SS), “Industrial Policy: New Wine in Old Bottles,” I argued that we’re almost certainly in the terminal crisis of state capitalism and the Sloanist model of mass-production. Unfortunately, all the major players in American politics seem bound and determined to jump-start the Sloanist industrial system.

The “Progressives” want to do it through Keynesian aggregate demand management to get the wheels of industry running at full capacity on the old “Consensus Capitalism” model of the mid-20th century, with a few coats of greenwash slapped on.

The Palin/Santelli/Joe the Plumber contingent wants to do it by preventing the further deflation of the bubble, propping up the inflated values of housing and other assets at taxpayer expense, piling up more money in the hands of the same plutocrats and CEOs whose income mushroomed over the past twenty years, and encouraging “investment” to “create jobs”–as if overinvestment and the inability of industry to dispose of its full output with the capacity it already has wasn’t the problem.

And Obama  is splitting the difference.

All the while, the real solution is to REDUCE the amount of time we spend in “jobs,” and REDUCE the astronomically high ratio of capital investment to output.  It is to cut out the unnecessary intermediate steps between effort and consumption, that result in most of the time at our “jobs” being spent running like rats in an exercise wheel just to service the overhead costs of those extra steps.  We need to reduce the unnecessary labor that goes to producing for waste or to paying rents on artificial property rights, and live better on a two- or three-day workweek.

The obvious danger of the mainstream approach is that trillions of dollars of resources otherwise available for building the successor economy will no longer be available, having already been sunk into white elephant projects to prop up the old system.

The good news is that some of the most important building blocks of the successor economy can be financed dirt cheap. Let me mention just a couple of heartening examples.

First, Open-Source Ecology’s “Factor E Farm” demo project. The project, located in the Kansas City area, is engaged in developing what it calls an “Open Village Construction Set”: an open-source toolkit of technologies that can form the nucleus of resilient local economies. The technologies are open-source and publicly available, and vernacular (cheaply reproducible from local resources). They are therefore amenable to viral or rhizomatic expansion (the way bermuda grass spreads in your garden no matter how many times you think you’ve killed it off), capable of unlimited replication using only labor, local resources (including scrap metal), and the publicly available designs.

The Open Village Construction Set includes over two dozen designs, in various stages of completion. Two of the projects have been prototyped and demonstrated. The first is a compressed earth block (CEB) press for construction using the cheapest and most universally available building material there is. The second is a small tractor (which can also be used as a prime mover for the CEB press and other machinery). A third project, also fairly well along in the development timeline, is a solar-powered steam generator, which is expected to offer electricity at a cost per watt far below existing photovoltaics (and significantly below coal).

Unfortunately, the limited funding and staff available to Factor E Farm (almost entirely crowdsourcing and volunteer labor working most of their waking hours) mean that only a few projects can be developed at a time. The others, some of them vitally important, must remain on the back burner.

The multimachine, for example, is a multiple-purpose machine tool for small-scale manufacturing. Besides being able to machine most of the parts for the other items in the Open Village Construction Set, it can also be used to make other multimachines from scrap metal! The multimachine has been prototyped and demonstrated elsewhere, but Factor E Farm so far hasn’t had the resources to give it the attention it deserves.

Factor E Farm is also developing tools and techniques for intensive raised-bed farming (including a greenhouse built using local materials and vernacular methods).

What’s amazing, as I already said, is the potential for viral or rhizomatic expansion once the technology is demonstrated. Even absent any large-scale publicity, local word of mouth in surrounding pockets of population are likely to be sufficient for the viral spread of the technologies where they exist. The coming time of troubles is apt to provide very strong selective pressure for “best practices.” Where multimachines are up and running, for example, they will likely be used to replicate themselves as fast as raw material can be acquired, to satisfy the need for replacement parts to keep appliances and machinery when the corporate supply chains break down.

The second project is something proposed only recently by Dougald Hine of Changing the World blog: “Social Media vs. the Recession.”

Looked at very simply: hundreds of thousands of people are finding or are about to find themselves with a lot more time and a lot less money than they are used to. The result is at least three sets of needs:

  • practical/financial (e.g. how do I pay the rent/avoid my house being repossessed?)
  • emotional/psychological (e.g. how do I face my friends? where do I get my identity from now I don’t have a job?)
  • directional (e.g. what do I do with my time? how do I find work?)….

Arguably the biggest thing that has changed in countries like the UK since there was last a major recession is that most people are networked by the internet and have some experience of its potential for self-organisation…. There has never been a major surge in unemployment in a context where these ways of “organising without organisations” were available.

As my School of Everything co-founder Paul Miller has written, London’s tech scene is distinctive for the increasing focus on applying these technologies to huge social issues – rather than throwing sheep! Agility and the ability to mobilise and gather momentum quickly are characteristics of social media and online self-organisation, in ways that government, NGOs and large corporations regard with a healthy envy.

So, with that, the conversations I’ve been having keep coming back to this central question: is there a way we can constructively mobilise to respond to this situation in the days and weeks ahead?…

If the aim is to avoid this recession creating a new tranche of long-term unemployed (as happened in the 1980s), then softening the distinction between the employed and unemployed is vital. In social media, we’ve already seen considerable softening of the line between producer and consumer in all kinds of areas, and there must be lessons to draw from this in how we view any large-scale initiative.

As I see it, such a softening would involve not only the kind of online tools and spaces suggested above, but the spread of real world spaces which reflect the collaborative values of social media. Examples of such spaces already exist:

  • Media labs on the model of Access Space or the Brasilian Pontos de Cultura programme, which has applied this approach on a national scale
  • Fab Labs for manufacturing, as already exist from Iceland to Afghanistan
  • studio spaces like TenantSpin, the micro-TV station in Liverpool based in a flat in a towerblock – and like many other examples in the world of Community Media

Again, if these spaces are to work, access to them should be open, not restricted to the unemployed. (If, as some are predicting, we see the return of the three day week, the value of spaces like this open to all becomes even more obvious!) In order for this to work, such spaces would need to be organised with the understanding that hanging out can be as valuable as more visibly productive activities – both because of the resilience that comes from building social connections, and because of the potential for information sharing and the sparking of new projects. There would also be a need for incubator spaces for projects that emerge from these spaces and are ready to move to the next level.

Nathan Cravens (a member of the Factor E Farm project–small world), in a post for P2P Foundation Blog, built on Hines’ idea with the following concrete proposal:

The Open Cafe / Community Supported Agriculture / Fab Lab Alliance

Open Cafes:
The physical hub for activity. A place where meals are prepared by people for people to eat for zero money. Its hip and empowering to dine/work/have a chat here.

Community Supported Agriculture:
Enough participants work in DIY gardens or community farms and donate the produce to the Cafe and or from government issued food cards. (I play both sides for the same aim)

Open Source Fab Labs:
Cafes align with OS Fab Labs to fill out the resource necessity gap to further save financial cost.

Wikis provide only an example for the communications medium used until better mediums are made: easy to use and easier to organize. For now, let’s work with the communications we have ready-made: e-mail and wikis.

Here are a few, but hardly all, hoops to jump through to make this Alliance a reality. This is just to prime the creative pump.

The Cafe is the focus:

  • A space and resources are donated for this purpose by those that see the benefit. It can begin in your home and branch out. In urban settings, it can begin with what is already public domain, the local park.
  • Food and beverage donation. Donations for the day/week can be viewed in advance on the Cafe’s wiki. Most everyone will want to participate in production because everyone can go here for free. There are no consumers here, rather, this is where producers are born willingly. There is not much difference between consumption or production here.
  • If money is needed, a wiki shows expenses that need to be met and what is generating them; those in the Fab Lab then have something to make to reduce or eliminate that cost.
  • Event planning. This too is done in wikis and is a place for people to perform or have specific discussions at the Cafe or elsewhere (like at the CSA or Fab Lab) to benefit the Cafe and the people that go there. The Cafe is our focus, because its where all of our interests can unite: in putting food literally on the table.
  • Elaborate and replicate the Cafe as needed…

Hines’ hints about softening the distinction between employed and unemployed and the three-day workweek, coupled with Nathan’s Cafe proposal, are reminiscent of a lot of older social analysis by left-wing decentralists like Colin Ward and Keith Paton. Under pressure of necessity from unemployment and underemployment, historically, workers have shifted to production in the household, informal, and barter economies to meet a significant portion of their needs. Ward and Paton, as well as Karl Hess, specifically proposed neighborhood or community workshops quite similar in concept to Nathan’s Cafes. Such workshops would pool individually-owned power tools in a common public space, repair and recycle non-functional machinery discarded by members of the community, etc. They would form the basis for production for subsistence outside the wage system for the unemployed and underemployed, as well as for the fully employed who wished to reduce dependence on wage labor.

Tied in with the kinds of technologies being developed by Factor E Farm, the possibilities for such a community-based countereconomy become even more exciting.

As I suggested to Nathan, housing is so pressing a need as to merit elevation into a fourth and separate leg of the stool. Providing a minimal but secure safety net against homelessness for the unemployed would fill a huge gap in the overall resilency strategy. It might be some kind of cheap, bare bones cohousing project associated with the Cafe (water taps, cots, hotplates, etc) that would house people at minimal cost on
the YMCA model. Squats in abandoned/public buildings, and building with scavenged materials on vacant lots, etc. (a la Colin Ward), might tie in with this as well.

And it might be tied in with Vinay Gupta’s work on cheap, open-source life-support technologies for refugees and residents of tent cities, shantytowns and Hoovervilles (LED lighting, solar cookers, solar water purifiers, etc.).

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