There’s an eerie familiarity to the stay-at-home orders issued during COVID-19. I can’t help but relate this to my experience as an 11 year old during the month-long curfew after the communal riots of Bombay.
Growing up in India, communal life dominated our lives. While the state functioned along the lines of rigid, monopolistic, soviet-socialist principles, life on a daily basis was steeped in genuine cultural diversity. There was a vibrancy and multi-dimensionality to everything around me, ranging from the arts, to food, to philosophies. I grew up familiar with five languages (not dialects) without realising that it was not a common feature of most people’s lives.
But the riots brought an ugly side of community life to the fore. I still recall peeking through the window (when I was specifically warned not to) to watch one religious community wreck the homes of neighbours from another community. I wondered why they would do this to each other after spending generations co-existing. To me, it highlighted the vulnerability in relying on one another.
This came at a pivotal moment in India’s journey. The 90’s were marked by the country’s long awaited leap into globalisation. As we opened borders for trade, we were invited to join in on the neoliberal trend that was gripping the world. The bargain was simple: if we were willing to trade in (or mute) our messy cultural identities, we could participate in the hyper- efficient, frictionless flow of capital and labour across the globe. We could free ourselves from the menace of tribalism and join the postmodern, FRIENDS-watching, Michael-Jordan-adoring monoculture. The world was flat, and so were our identities.
But we’ve always known that the bargain would catch up with us. Nowhere has this been more apparent than with COVID-19 marking the inevitable collapse of Neoliberalism. Being confined to my home in Singapore, I’m reminded of the curfew back in Bombay. While the riots sparked a move towards homogeneous centralisation, this crisis seems to be begging us to return to a more wholesome cultural expression.
It might be that the principles of Gram Swaraj,1 a movement built by Gandhi during India’s Independence struggle hold the key to rebuilding decentralised organising capacities.
The movement was built on the understanding that asking the Imperialists to leave wasn’t answer enough for emerging India. Colonization was embedded within the heart of industrialization, and it’s homogenizing force could be disastrous for a country built on radical diversity. The key to building decentralised organizing capacities however, lay in instilling a sense of wholesome pride in our identities without descending into tribalism.
The Economic Model for Gram Swaraj
The iconic charkha, or spinning wheel, could be considered the ideal representation of the economic model used for the movement. Each community had access to the low-cost technology behind the charkha, and could fork designs based on spinning techniques they were comfortable with and the strain of cotton they grew. The design, coupled with a distributed network of ‘Satyagrahis’ helped facilitate the revival of diverse cultural identities across the nation.
The charkha when pitted against the textile nation provided the perfect contrast for differences between decentralised and centralised economic models. Industrialized models thrive on holding the technological design sacred, in order to generate a stream of revenues back to the owner. Decentralised models hold cultural boundaries as sacred, and technologies may be tweaked to suit the context.
In a nutshell: moving from centralisation to decentralisation is incomplete without an underlying narrative that supports diversity in culture. Monoculture is the antithesis to distributed networks. Memetic propagation was the key to arriving at a design that worked for a community since there were no centralised gatekeepers that could hold back forks in designs.
The organising principles for these two realities could be summarised as:
Centralized Economies: ‘Apps or Businesses’
Built through Specific Technologies, Generic Culture
Decentralized Economies: ‘Neighbourhoods’
Built through Generic Technologies, Specific Culture.
The Importance of Formalisation
How can communities build specific culture without the traditional socio-patriarchal patterns that can often devolve into tribalism? The work of Gandhian economist, JC Kumarappa outlines principles for validating different forms of value, as capital, using a broad spectrum of currencies. Some of this has been adapted by authors like EF Schumacher, and more recently through the currency design work of the Metacurrency Project and the Commons Engine.
Noted Gandhian author Rajni Bakshi’s words in Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom articulate the problem as an extraction of market forces from social fabric.2
The key therefore may lie in building a formal economic language for social fabric that could complement, if not compete with monetary capital.
In other words, we might be able to re-engage with our cultural identities if we create formal economic languages that help us articulate social capital.
Such designs could be built by amplifying the use of reputational currencies (as proposed by organisations like Sacred Capital). Reputational currencies tend to be endogenous, contextual, relative, and non-zero-sum and provide the perfect fabric for capturing, yet preserving the nuanced nature of culture.
This is, however, possible due to the gradual rise in agent-centric designs for technology (a narrow subset of distributed ledger systems) like Holochain. With each user maintaining their own immutable version of the ledger, we have situations where the ‘truth’ doesn’t need to be recorded in one universal place. This allows us to piece together highly contextual snapshots of reality, and more importantly, enable agency for people over their records.
The radically low costs for maintaining such records mean we gain the capacity to formalise not just the monetarily important, but also the contextually critical.
In particular, we see the possible revitalization of prominent themes of Gram Swaraj through the following mechanisms:
The agent-centric nature of these technologies is primed for the ability to ‘fork’ large blocks of technical tools that can be repurposed to suit a wide spectrum of contexts. Initiatives like Holo-REA, ValueFlows, Sacred Capital under the umbrella of Economikit are enabling these possibilities. This implies that communities have the ability to articulate their own culture instead of being forced to operate under the overarching generic culture imposed by tech empires in the name of easy-to-use-technology.
Centralised economies have traditionally used a combination of monetary and regulatory systems to articulate culture, and facilitate propagation within their eco-system. But agent-centric technologies democratise the ability to formally articulate reputation and harness the power of narratives within any community irrespective of scale. The use of reputation fabric facilitates propagation through resonance, as opposed to rent-seeking due to its non-zero-sum nature. As cultural ideas and memes are generated by communities, their transfer occurs through the process of memetic propagation similar to the evolution of DNA during the process of evolution. Projects and conversations developed by Microsolidarity are likely to define how we achieve this more skillfully.
Agent centric technologies enable individual users to port their reputational data through consent across ecosystems. It means individuals can show up in new networks or communities not as strangers, but with prior, relevant contexts.
Through the process of mediation, we could see functional, contextual bridges open between communities that haven’t been an option for people prior to this. (Projects like ‘Neighbourhoods’ and the Reputation Vault may play a key role here). In the long run, this facilitates the shift away from tribalism as communities develop feedback mechanisms for collaborating and communicating with each other. Over the past few decades, ‘trade’ has been the primary bridge between tribes across the globe. With this story falling away in the last couple years, perhaps the new collaborative story will rise through the process of shared cultural evolution and mediation.
Mastering the art of memetic propagation and mediation over the coming decade could provide solutions not only to the knowledge sharing and organisation problem, but could also help develop contextual guardrails for the flow of capital, content, and labour over the long term.
Eventually, porting capabilities may build distributed webs of social intelligence which guide our engagements and interactions within and across communities. This could represent an agent-centric, decentralised alternative to our growing dependence on centralised algorithmic engagement. The lure of AIs efficiencies in light of pandemics, climate change and monetary shocks is strong, even though it is this thinking that actually exacerbates the issue. As the percentage of overall corporate profits generated by large corporations continues to rise, populous nations across regions are very genuinely questioning the role of human agency, and if enabling entrepreneurs is really the key to a thriving national economy. Generating new feedback loops, which articulate and amplify new dimensions of value are therefore critical in building a vision that uplifts a broad spectrum of society.
- Gram (n): village, community; Swaraj (n): Self-sovereignty emerging from agency
Gram Swaraj, a special term coined by Mahatma Gandhi and later developed by Vinoba promotes conversion of every village into a self-efficient autonomous entity where all the systems and facilities for a dignified living are available. Gandhian ideology has inspired to keep human happiness in tandem with sustainable growth. Swaraj is self rule with continuous effort towards independence and self reliance. Gram Swaraj or village self rule is decentralized, human centric and non-exploiting. It adheres to working towards simple village economy and to achieve self sufficiency.
- Economic Transactions were always part of society, but were cradled within social fabric (we negotiated aggressively with each other but were still bound to look after the same people in our communities). However, the rise of global trade has led to markets that are removed from society, leading to a homogenizing force that is dominant above all else.
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