If you just tell someone what you don’t want, you’ll have a long list to recite. Our aim is not to “relieve poverty”, nor to “fight disease”, nor to “end hunger”. None of these—nor any of the common aims of mainstream charities—cover everything. Instead, we state what we do want to create. We say the aim of our projects is “Freedom to Live in Abundance”, so we should define abundance.
To avoid scarcity we have to gain an understanding of what causes it, and this means understanding how abundance comes about. Scarcity and abundance are not opposites, they are just words to describe the level of fulfillment.
You could say that really we’re in the business of creating a miracle here on earth. I’m saying it’s something that is impossible from an old understanding of reality but possible from a new one. And in fact, anything less isn’t even worth trying.Charles Eisenstein.
Abundance is Normal
Abundance is our natural state. It’s what children expect to be surrounded by. We have to be trained to abandon the idea and accept the fake scarcities our culture imposes on us. See this story about 2 boys who escaped from Kindergarten for a clear example:
Two 5-year-old Russian boys staged their own version of “The Great Escape” from a kindergarten in the Urals, using spades to dig a tunnel. Then, like Steve McQueen in the classic WWII movie, they went to get some getaway wheels: a Jaguar sports car.
The two walked for 2 kilometers to a car showroom, and told a female driver nearby that they were going to buy a Jaguar. The only hole in their escape plan? They didn’t have any money. The woman put the boys in her car, and took the mischievous duo to the police. It turned out that the boys had been plotting their daring escape for days, digging a hole under the fence using their sandpit spades.
We may laugh at their naivete in presuming an abundance of cars such that they could just go to the showroom and get one, but what follows might make you think again about our presumptions regarding “famine” and its causes. They are equally ill-infomred.
“I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet I assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means–except by getting off his back”-Leo Tolstoy.
Abundance is the natural state of things in this world. It’s what happens if we don’t actively create scarcity by lowering abundance. Most people think of famine as an example of scarcity, and that it just happens naturally. Most think that we have to fight famine by sending the victims food, and stop it from happening again by teaching them new ways to grow more food. We continue to believe this nonsense, even though the idea has caused disaster after disaster since the original “Green Revolution” of the 1940s. This idea only makes sense when we don’t understand the real underlying causes of famine.
India during the time of the British Empire was famous for its famines, and the stories of those famines have influenced our perception of famine right up to this day. We think people starve because there is a scarcity of food, caused by some natural process, and that we need technology and scientific advances to prevent it from happening in the future. The reality differs vastly from what we have been told.
Famine in India
In 1877 and 1878, at the height of the famine, British grain merchants exported a record 320,000 tonnes of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, officials were ordered to “discourage relief works in every possible way.” The Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877 prohibited, “at the pain of imprisonment, private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market fixing of grain prices.” The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labour, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. In the labour camps, the workers were given less food than inmates of Nazi concentration camps. In 1877, monthly mortality in the camps equated to an annual death rate of 94 per cent.
As millions died, the imperial government launched “a militarised campaign to collect the tax arrears accumulated during the drought.” The money, which ruined those who might otherwise have survived, was used by the British elite to fund their war in Afghanistan. Somewhere in the region of 7 million Indians starved to death as a result of the British manufactured ‘famine’ of 1876. Another false famine was provoked by the British in 1900 causing the deaths of 1 million, and again at the height of the Second World War, ‘famine’ struck the Bengal region killing 3 million while the British stockpiled and exported Indian food. In response to an urgent request by the Secretary of State for India Leo Amery and Field Marshall Wavell to release food stocks for India, Winston Churchill responded with a telegram asking, “if food is so scarce, why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”Joe Quinn -pdf below
For an example of how this is still continuing today, see thecitizen.in article about GMO crops and suicides. (pdf below)
Masses of food were being exported to England again during the Irish famine, and again in Ethiopia more recently. At the time of the now-famous “Live Aid” concert, tobacco and sugar were still being exported from Ethiopia, and there were 30 million cattle in the country, primarily for export to the west. In the Barclays Bank report on “Prospects for Investment in Ethiopia” (Oct.1985), they complain about the aid convoys:
”The chief cash crop is coffee, grown on the plateaux in the South West, providing around 60% of the country’s total export earnings. Output in the 1984/85 [famine year} harvest is expected to be some 20% down on the previous season at 160,000 tonnes Additionally, transport difficulties arising from the diversion of vehicles for drought relief are hindering exports”
Freedom To Live In Abundance
Abundance can be achieved by not doing the things that cause scarcity. Famine is caused by the accretion of power in the hands of a few people—not by locusts, not by drought, but by people in positions of power. When people have the ability to produce everything they need themselves, locally, by cooperating with each other in voluntary peer-to-peer relationships, abundance follows naturally.
Abundance is easy to achieve. It’s what happens when local people are free to make their own decisions, call in advice and have unrestricted access to information. A temporary relief from the burdens imposed on them by the actions of past misleaders provides them with that freedom. The Direct Sponsor System enables us to provide that relief without re-introducing or perpetuating the causes of scarcity.
Our economy can be seen primarily as an exchange economy. It’s a way of moving things from where they are scarce and thus highly valued to where they are more abundant and thus less valued. If someone spends a lot of time making shoes, he’ll have an abundance of them, and might not have time to gather food. Someone else who gathers food would value the shoes more than the food and be willing to exchange food for shoes. Both parties gain from the transaction and are happy. Money is a way to make those trades easier.
But you can see that this is an adaptation to scarcity. It works well when there is scarcity, but is not relevant when there is abundance. That’s why abundance is difficult to imagine to people in our society, and it’s hard to envisage how things might be different in a society where there is abundance. We take our ‘aid’ to those less fortunate than us, which is fine, but we also attach all our own faults and baggage with it, making them follow our path, our ways, as a condition of the aid.
In this way, we help them out of their immediate problems, but also doom them to become just like us. We get them to do trade exactly as we do it and to borrow money to set up cash crop farms just like ours. We help them to set up organizations that mirror our own exactly. We set them up for scarcity. What if we didn’t do that? What might they create in the absence of our scarcity-based systems?
“I see and admire your manner of living… In short you can do almost what you choose. You whites possess the power of subduing almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves. Every thing about you is in chains and you are slaves yourselves. I fear that if I should exchange my pursuits for yours, I too should become a slave.”-Osage chief Big Soldier
The Direct Sponsor system only enables people to do their own projects, based on their own initiatives. After the sponsorship period, the recipients are free to pursue whatever they want to pursue. Having an abundance of all they need to survive means that they are not bound to any particular thing in order to continue surviving, and can try out things that they couldn’t if their lives depended on producing tons of coconuts every year on their plantation, for example. They might even choose to do nothing and just laze in the sun, as their ancestors did to the extreme annoyance of their colonial masters.
Or they might come up with something entirely different. The section below is a decent summary of economic systems. It’s a chapter from Homesteading the Noosphere, an article about hacker culture, which is attached as a pdf below.
To understand the role of reputation in the open-source culture, it is helpful to move from history further into anthropology and economics, and examine the difference between exchange cultures and gift cultures.
Human beings have an innate drive to compete for social status; it’s wired in by our evolutionary history. For the 90% of that history that ran before the invention of agriculture, our ancestors lived in small nomadic hunting-gathering bands. High-status individuals (those most effective at informing coalitions and persuading others to cooperate with them) got the healthiest mates and access to the best food. This drive for status expresses itself in different ways, depending largely on the degree of scarcity of survival goods.
Most ways humans have of organizing are adaptations to scarcity and want. Each way carries with it different ways of gaining social status.
The simplest way is the command hierarchy. In command hierarchies, allocation of scarce goods is done by one central authority and backed up by force. Command hierarchies scale very poorly [Mal]; they become increasingly brutal and inefficient as they get larger. For this reason, command hierarchies above the size of an extended family are almost always parasites on a larger economy of a different type. In command hierarchies, social status is primarily determined by access to coercive power.
Our society is predominantly an exchange economy. This is a sophisticated adaptation to scarcity that, unlike the command model, scales quite well. Allocation of scarce goods is done in a decentralized way through trade and voluntary cooperation (and in fact, the dominating effect of competitive desire is to produce cooperative behavior). In an exchange economy, social status is primarily determined by having control of things (not necessarily material things) to use or trade.
Most people have implicit mental models for both of the above, and how they interact with each other. Government, the military, and organized crime (for example) are command hierarchies parasitic on the broader exchange economy we call ‘the free market’. There’s a third model, however, that is radically different from either and not generally recognized except by anthropologists; the gift culture.
Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods. We can observe gift cultures in action among aboriginal cultures living in ecozones with mild climates and abundant food. We can also observe them in certain strata of our own society, especially in show business and among the very wealthy.
Abundance makes command relationships difficult to sustain and exchange relationships an almost pointless game. In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.
Thus the Kwakiutl chieftain’s potlach party. Thus the multi-millionaire’s elaborate and usually public acts of philanthropy. And thus the hacker’s long hours of effort to produce high-quality open-source code.
For examined in this way, it is quite clear that the society of open-source hackers is in fact a gift culture. Within it, there is no serious shortage of the ‘survival necessities’ – disk space, network bandwidth, computing power. Software is freely shared. This abundance creates a situation in which the only available measure of competitive success is reputation among one’s peers.
This observation is not in itself entirely sufficient to explain the observed features of hacker culture, however. The crackers and warez d00dz have a gift culture that thrives in the same (electronic) media as that of the hackers, but their behavior is very different. The group mentality in their culture is much stronger and more exclusive than among hackers. They hoard secrets rather than sharing them; one is much more likely to find cracker groups distributing sourceless executables that crack software than tips that give away how they did it. (For an inside perspective on this behavior, see [LW]).
What this shows, in case it wasn’t obvious, is that there is more than one way to run a gift culture. History and values matter. I have summarized the history of the hacker culture in A Brief History of Hackerdom ; the ways in which it shaped present behavior are not mysterious. Hackers have defined their culture by a set of choices about the form which their competition will take. It is that form which we will examine in the remainder of this paper.Homesteading The Noosphere (full pdf below)