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Transmuting History, Sentient Stardust, & Provocations
Hello, fellow humans -
“Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?” (RV)
Here’s a bit from the electric book, The Revolution of Everyday Life:
“Something is taking place today which no imagination has ever dared speculate upon: the process of individual alchemy is on the point of transmuting an inhuman history into nothing less than humanity’s self-realisation.”
- Raoul Vaneigem, 1991
Though I’m wary of making history about humans, this notion that we’re perched on the brink of an unprecedented, paradigmatic evolution is invigorating. It’s also much in line with the thinking happening around the transition from scarcity to abundance, and how such a move might ripple out and manifest everywhere from media environments to economics.
Christopher Vitale frames this slightly differently, writing from the perspective of complexity science. He writes that as we begin to see ourselves as nodes in a network of complex systems, we might begin to act in ways that serve the health of complex systems, known as ‘robustness’. Complex systems are robust when they have strong elements of diversity and differing, meta-stability, and ample feedback loops.
If humans begin to self-optimize for robustness, or the sustainable emergence of complexity, it would signify, for the first time, a moment where the values between the organisms of the universe and the universe itself (conceived as a complex system) come into sync:
“To self-consciously value the evolution of robustness [the sustainable emergence of complexity] in ourselves and our world would in fact be a turning point in the history of evolution of life, for it would be the first time in which its own organisms, the neurons in its collective brain, came into sync with it.”
Erik Olin Wright’s Dying Journal Entry
The sociologist who specialized in alternative futures to capitalism, Erik Olin Wright, died this year.
He was diagnosed with leukemia, and told he has roughly three weeks to live. 18 days before his death, he wrote a journal entry, self-titled “A Strange State of Existence”. Most of his written work regards capitalism and marxism, but death has its way of boiling matters down to their essence.
The entry is a heartening reminder that beneath it all, there can be a shared experience of gratitude and wonder, that together anchor a visceral sense of grace. Pressed up against the fact of death, Wright’s writing had nothing to do with Marx. He marveled at the fact of sentience, at the complex journey and arrangement of stardust that gives rise to the kind of consciousness we inexplicably experience.:
“Strange state of existence
Journal entry by Erik Olin Wright — Jan 5, 2019
I have roughly three weeks left of existence. Three weeks…The doctors say “a few weeks” — a nice surprise would be to slide into February; my birthday is February 9. We’ll see what happens.
This is all hard to take in fully. I am not in great turmoil over dying. I am sad about many things, desperately sad about those connected to my family. But I’m not afraid. I wrote about this early on; my feelings haven’t changed: I am stardust that randomly ended up in this marvelous corner of the milky way where some stardust ended up in conditions where it became complexly organized in a way we term “alive.” And then even more complexly— conscious stardust that is fully aware that it is conscious: amazing — stardust, inanimate products of exploding supernova, organized in such a complex way that it is conscious of its own aliveness and consciousness — the greatest privilege in the whole, immense universe. It may be for a limited time — this complex organization ends and the stardust that is me will dissipate back to the more ordinary state of matter. Nothing to do about that. As creative fanciful minds, we humans are good at inventing ways for our existence as conscious beings to continue after the stardust dissipates. It would be nice. I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but I’ll find out by some time in February.”
Any economics with that sort of sentiment at its core will be all the richer for it. Most recently, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his essay: How to be an Anticapitalist Today.
Books as Gardens of Provocation
Speaking of deaths, the celebrated literary critic Harold Bloom died recently. Reading a memorial piece in the New York Times, there was this bit on his reading habits:
I don’t even know what that means…is that possible?
More broadly, I’m weening myself off the meme of ‘consuming’ information. In one sense, information is always being consumed, at least passively. But as far as my intentional efforts go, rather than consuming as many books as possible, I’m looking to find the highest jolt of provocation from the least amount of information intake.
My favorite books aren’t transmissions of ideas, they’re gardens of provocation. For example, another few bits from Raoul Vaneigem’s book:
“There are more truths in twenty-four hours of a [wo]man’s life than in all the philosophies.”
“Art, ethics, philosophy bear witness: under the crust of words and concepts, the living reality of non-adaptation to the world is always crouched ready to spring.”
“In the early 1960’s I conjectured that the examination of my own subjectivity, far from constituting an isolated activity, would resonate with other, like endeavors; and that if this examination was in tune with the times, it would in some way modulate those times in harmony with our desires.”
In all these cases, the entire thrust of the book, the feeling underlying the words for which the book exists to excavate, manifests in each instance of the text. Each paragraph contains the seed of the whole.
It’s not a linear argument that requires you follow the premises in order to wind up at the author’s conclusion. It’s a series of pin-pricks that jolt you, again and again, so that you might surface from your internal slumber into a direct confrontation with a feeling that forces you to live differently, to confront its presence and remake your life in light of it.
Musing Mind Podcast Update
Thanks to everyone who listened, reviewed, and offered feedback on the first 4 episodes of the podcast. So far, response is solid!
My conversation with Zak Stein seems to be circulating widely - his work is fascinating. Amplifying the questions he explores, while also engaging with them deeper myself, is exactly why I wanted to start the podcast.
My next guest will be Karl Widerquist - one of the world’s leading experts on Basic Income. He has two Ph.D.’s, one in economics, the other in political theory, and co-chairs the Basic Income Earth Network.
I plan on calling this “The Basic Income Episode”, using it as a platform to explore Basic Income in as much depth as I can muster - the good, and the worrisome. I already have a number of areas for discussion:
How much will UBI actually cost?
How can we pay for it? Is the money better spent elsewhere?
Karl’s philosophy of freedom, and the role UBI can play in ushering in a new kind of freedom
Will UBI just ‘trickle up’? Should we be exploring Basic Assets to deal with the underlying problem of wealth concentration?
What about the free rider problem?
Karl writes: “As long as there are people without access to enough resources to maintain independence, there will be people who are unfree. What kind of revolution would make you free?”
As readers of this newsletter, I’d love to hear any questions, concerns, or interests you’d like the conversation to address. Please respond to this email if you have any thoughts for the conversation.
A forthcoming book from Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman found that in 2018, the wealthiest 400 households paid lower tax rates than any other income group, and the lowest income households paid their highest rates yet:
Decaying Currency - Negative Interest Rates
Charles Eisenstein’s book, Sacred Economics, is a deep study of the relationship between capital and consciousness. In it, he proposed a negative-interest money system, and traces how it might fundamentally alter the human experience.
Rather than money earning interest, money stored in banks would be subject to a small fee, perhaps 0.1%, so that money, like everything else, decays over time.
Eisenstein draws from the ideas of Silvio Gesell - who John Maynard Keynes calls “an unduly neglected prophet”. Gesell wrote:
“Only money that goes out of date like a newspaper, rots like potatoes, rusts like iron, evaporates like ether, is capable of standing the test as an instrument for the exchange of potatoes, newspapers, iron, and ether. For such money is not preferred to goods either by the purchaser or the seller. We then part with our goods for money only because we need the money as a means of exchange, not because we expect an advantage from possession of the money.”
Gesell viewed negative interest rates as a way to decouple money as a store of value from money as a medium of exchange.
When the medium of exchange is also a store of value, the incentive is obviously to accumulate and hoard it. But if the medium of exchange is no longer an imperishable store of value, the incentive to hold it lessens, and money prefers to circulate.
Neither is this some hippie, utopian fantasy. Some European countries are already using negative rates at times, and even Donald Trump recently suggested the US go negative.
Here’s an interesting line to draw between Keynes, Eisenstein, negative interest rates, and how economics can fundamentally alter the human experience:
Back in Keynes’ Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, where he envisions humans eventually transcending the ‘economic problem’, he wrote:
“But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”
And in Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics (2011), he writes that negative-interest money could actually be the mechanism that ousts usury and leads us into ‘daylight’:
“Negative-interest money, backed by things that are sacred, in an ecological economy, turns the intuitions of the Age of Usury on their head. It is utterly revolutionary, fundamentally altering the human experience.”
These are the angles on economic policy I love: those that acknowledge the relationship between flows of capital and forms of consciousness, and leverage radical possibilities to enrich the latter.
As always, you can respond directly to this email with thoughts, critiques, and suggestions.
Until next time,