MONOPLOLY AND ANTI-MONOPOLY
People around the world, and Americans in particular, have enjoyed playing the board game called Monopoly for almost a century. Maps and money were even smuggled to American POWs in Germany during World War Two inside Monopoly boards to help them escape. The game is based on cutthroat competition. Players can buy the unpurchased properties on which they land and charge others rent when they land on the same spot later. By making improvements to the spots (buying hotels, etc.), owners can charge higher rent. Over time, some get the choicest properties and can charge outlandish rents. Others fall behind and begin to run out of cash. The goal of the game is to drive all the other players bankrupt. It sounds cruel, but it’s only a game, right? Of course most people think of it that way, but the fact that business owners over the years have used this game to teach others how capitalism works shows that it is much more than that.
The history of the game is complicated. It actually begins with anti-Monopoly. Henry George was a political economist in the late 1800s who believed that land should be owned in common by all. A follower of George’s named Elizabeth Magie created The Landlord’s Game in 1902 to show how systems of land ownership enrich landlords and impoverish tenants. The game had two sets of rules: one for monopolists and one for anti-monopolists. The anti-monopolist version of the rules was called “Prosperity.” Players paid their rents in the form of a single tax into the public treasury, which was used to make university education free to everyone and raise wages across the board. When a building is constructed, it benefitted everyone, since the land was owned in common. All players won the game when the person with the least assets doubled their wealth. The idea was that by rejecting individual ownership of land, all the players of the game would win together. The game taught people to share selflessly, collaborate, and think about the greater good. The game circulated on the East Coast, especially in colleges, and especially among economics students. Different versions of the game appeared under various titles.
During the Great Depression, Charles Darrow took the game that others invented and called it Monopoly. He falsely claimed it was his own invention and sold it to Parker Brothers. They only produced the monopolist version, not the anti-monopolist version. The main effect of this purchase was the popularization of this one version. People liked this version of the game because it was more exciting than the anti-monopoly version. There is a thrill involved in the ups and downs of the game because, like musical chairs, there can only be one winner in the end. How much adrenaline is generated when you know everyone will be a winner in the end, and the only question is how many rounds it will take? Monopoly teaches people to be ruthless landlords who have no pity for their tenants. This may make for a more lively game night, but what about the lessons from the game that people have been internalizing all these years? Out of interest for a more exciting game, are we normalizing greed and bloodthirstiness? Perhaps we need to redesign our games so that they reflect desirable values and have only one brass ring at the end, so people can experience suspense and excitement as they compete to be the most cooperative and helpful.
Real life is not a board game. The same qualities that make a game or an action movie enjoyable do not make real life enjoyable. No one wants to be overcharged for rent, impoverished, and forced into bankruptcy. We want our real lives to be stable, secure, and low-stress. It would be nice if we could all be winners, and a rising tide really did raise all boats, as Henry George intended. These would make people’s lives better if implemented, but they don’t instantly translate into the most addictive board game of all time. Americans have long been good at missing the point: letting important, life-altering messages sail right past them and seizing instead on trivialities that can be turned into comic strips, jokes, fads, or other mainstays of superficial popular culture – anything to kill time or make a buck. Monopoly achieves both these goals. Instead of accepting a revolutionary idea and making the appropriate reforms, we wound up with a way to kill time that ironically focused our minds in the opposite direction. The progressive reforms of the early 1900s were partially inspired by George. It’s a shame that we never embraced his profound ideas the way we embraced the banal game that was spun-off from them. Although we’ve lost a century, it is still not too late to change. If we play our cards right, prosperity for all can be a reality. It's your move.
A WORLD BASED ON COMPETITION OR COOPERATION?
We live in a modern world where competition is cutthroat, and the losers in the game wind up in poverty or homelessness. Travel to any American city today and you will see homeless encampments to rival those of the Great Depression. Why is it that in the richest, most powerful country on earth, there is such an abundance of poverty and so many people living in tents? All corporations are interested in cutting costs to maximize profits, so they have engaged in a race to the bottom for decades, sending manufacturing jobs wherever the pay is lowest. The jobs we have left are not always enough to go around, and with skyrocketing rents and interest rates, unaffordable housing is the main reason for homelessness.
In the world of today, each person or household is an island unto themselves. If you meet with misfortune, your income or savings could disappear overnight. Your neighbors may feel sad when you have to move out, but there is little they can do to help. This creates a world of stress and worry, with no safety net and little sense of community. It creates a world where the children of those who somehow lost out in the economic competition have to go through life handicapped with fewer resources and opportunities. This creates a self-perpetuating class system where some are born with silver spoons in their mouths and others are born with no roof over their heads. From the perspective of those on top of the economic heap, the system works just fine, but the truth is that the costs are unbelievably high.
While some competition is healthy and necessary for any economy, more cooperation is what we need to improve our lives and our neighborhoods. In a cooperative economic system, as described in Utopia Found, co-op communities would be owned by the people who lived in the community themselves. They would also be full or part owners of the businesses that employed them. People would not lose their jobs over light and transient reasons, and if one particular job or project didn’t work out, they could find another one and still remain fully involved and productive. Even in case of a disaster like COVID, if businesses did have to shut down for a period, it would not lead to people being evicted from their homes. The members of each community, as joint owners of the entire neighborhood, would continue living in their houses with full peace of mind. As members of one big co-op team, they would be like a big family, working together and sharing to provide for the needs of all members.
This sort of cooperative economic milieu would have countless obvious benefits on both the microeconomic and macroeconomic levels. Modern communities aren’t really communities at all; they are just collections of people who happen to live near one another but have nothing in common. Communities would be strengthened (created, actually) and made into safe, encouraging places where everyone was given support and an opportunity to contribute to the best of their abilities. Among other things, this would give everyone peace of mind, which would mean less stress, which would translate into better health. On the larger, societal scale, the cooperative economic system means equitable teamwork. It means a world with zero unemployment, zero poverty, zero homelessness, and zero people without access to health care. Health and prosperity like this will translate into education levels rising dramatically, which will lead to a commensurate rise in knowledge, skills, productivity, and new inventions. The economy of the entire world would become more high-tech, more efficient, more equitable, and more focused in positive directions (less drinking, smoking, and gambling; more reading, learning, and creativity). All in all, an economy focused more on cooperation and less on competition would be better for everyone.
A WORLD WITHOUT DEBT, INTEREST RATES, OR INFLATION
If we considered ownership of land to be a human right held in common by all members of a community, everyone would automatically have a place to live. With a more or less guaranteed shelter as part of your position in a cooperative community, you would no longer have to worry about unaffordable rent, buying a home, or getting a mortgage to be paid back with interest over decades. Of course, this is not a promise that you could sit back and enjoy life without work or worry – we will always have jobs to do and responsibilities to take care of – but overall, the stress level would be brought down by more than 50% if we were all part owners of our neighborhood community, and every member considered every other member as part of the same team. Not only would you no longer have to worry about becoming homeless, but you would also be covered by the community, Amish-style, in the area of repair and reconstruction. You would not need individual homeowner’s insurance, and you would not have to constantly worry about rising costs or the fine print of what disasters were and weren’t covered under your policy.
After a home, the second biggest purchase we make is usually for an automobile (or two, or three). This procurement for a conveyance of the future can also best be handled as part of an economic package made by the community, relieving individuals from the headache of having to get a loan to buy a car, buy insurance, pay for fuel, and maintain the car on their own. Imagine having the heavy lifting in all these areas done for you, including on-site mechanics and experts to help at no extra cost (but just as part of their job).
The next major reason people borrow large amounts of money is to get a college education. Once again, in a cooperative economic program, this would be included as part of the entire system, and there would be no extra fee for the students. We get too hung up on the word “free,” and when told something is free, we feel there must be a trick involved. Actually, there is no such thing as free in economics. The support for a service, product, or institution must always come from somewhere. It does not have to be a fee-based system, however. The community, the network of other similar communities, and society in general should recognize the importance of education above all, and everyone should pitch in to create universities and colleges that are as inclusive as possible. Without tuition, students would no longer need to borrow money and pay it back later with interest. Everyone would benefit directly from having access to a complimentary education in their youth (full opportunities without cost or limit), and then they would spend their careers paying it forward to the next generation, by supporting the systems that would keep those universities operating. Everyone would gain an advantage under such a plan because the entire citizenry would be better educated, more productive, more creative, and have their standard of living improved in countless ways.
Another type of loan we currently deal with is a business loan. Today you need to convince a bank that you are worth the risk of a loan in order to start a business, improve a business, or just keep a business afloat. In a cooperative economic system, these loans also would become passé. Instead of persuading a lending institution to trust you, you would need to convince other people or groups to work with you. The good part about this is that you would all be in it together, and if the project or business did not go as planned, you would not be trapped by crushing debt, and perhaps go bankrupt.
We are talking about a whole new economic regime: a complete end to home loans, car loans, school loans, and business loans. If there is no further need for loans, we would basically be free from the tyranny of interest rates. There would be no further need to pay interest for 30 or 40 years (or more) and no way the growth of an economy could be hijacked by rising interest rates. When an economy is doing well and people have near full employment, like in 2022-2023, people are able to afford more, and prices go up. This inflation means purchasing power per dollar is diluted, and people panic. The primary way to curb inflation has typically been to raise interest rates, which the Fed has been doing in spades. This makes it harder for people to borrow money for homes, cars, businesses, or college and generally slows down the economy. It is a bit like chemotherapy. It causes suffering, yes, but it is deemed worth it because it also kills inflation. It is an almost medieval notion, like bleeding a sick person to make them get well. If we lived in a cooperative economic system, where workers owned their own homes and their own businesses, and trades were mostly done not in terms of units of credit, but as goods and services provided in systems of complex circular exchange, tracked and regulated by computer, there would be an end to debt, an end to loans, and an end to interest rates - and all the trouble they cause. Inflation would also be at an end, since trading would mostly be a matter of reciprocal expectations, not money changing hands. The unit of trade would be the goods and services themselves, whose value would fluctuate according to relative supply and demand, but not in relation to an all-encompassing currency, whose abstract value can crash at any time with catastrophic consequences for all involved. We would no longer be burdened by rent, debt, interest rates, or inflation. The economy would be allowed to grow without these built-in limitations, and people would be able to live their lives with much greater peace of mind.
THE ROSETO EFFECT
In the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, researchers in the mid-1900s, discovered a surprising lack of heart disease in the town. They looked for an explanation in the town’s unique diet, exercise habits, or heredity, but they could find no evidence to support any of these things. Finally, researchers did find some unusual characteristics of the community that appeared to lower stress for the residents. The factors that appeared to be contributing to their good health were all scientific intangibles: many families with multiple generations living together under the same roof, shared culture, lack of crime, and strong community involvement by citizens. This apparently led to an overall sense of well-being. This combination of factors lowering the risk of heart disease became known as the “Roseto effect.”
People living in the type of cooperative community environment I describe will benefit tremendously from the so-called “Roseto effect.” Imagine how nice it would be to own the land on which you live and not need to pay mortgage, rent, or even taxes for the right to remain there. Imagine how secure you would feel if you were a part owner of the place where you worked, and could not be let go for light and transient reasons. Instead of having bosses who thought about firing people for every small error, imagine working as part of a team of equals who had each other’s backs. Just think of what it would be like if all your neighbors were also friends with whom you had a lot in common. Consider how different your life would be if there were no more worry about crime, the ability to leave your doors unlocked at night, no possibility of being fired, no concern about loss of income, no concern over a loss of medical insurance, and no serious conflict with the people living around you. What would that sort of peace of mind mean to you over the long term?
Stress is a killer. Stress hormones cause high blood pressure, inflammation, lack of sleep, indigestion, depression, lowered immune response, psychological problems, and of course, heart disease. A study published in the Dec. 15, 2021 issue of JAMA included over 118,000 people and concluded that increased stress significantly added to the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Other key indicators that increase the risk of heart disease are loneliness and depression, which are often connected. Johann Hari’s recent groundbreaking book, Lost Connections, examines the depression epidemic, and six of the nine causes of depression the author lists would all be alleviated by the sort of spiritual cooperative lifestyle I advocate. The factors are disconnection from: (1) meaningful work, (2) other people, (3) meaningful values, (4) respect, in terms of the systemic, daily disrespect we face living as commoners in a world run by billionaires, (5) the natural world, and (6) a hopeful or secure future. The book concludes that the problem of depression is largely a matter of how decisions are made at a person’s place of work. He cites a 2011-2012 Gallup Poll’s findings that only 13% of people enjoy their work most of the time, 63% feel neutral about it, and 24% hate their jobs. He notes that when people feel little or no control at work, they have a greater chance of depression and heart attack. The book brings to light the interesting example of Meredith Mitchell and her husband Josh, who worked as employees in a bicycle store for years and hated it. Then they formed a democratic co-op bike store where all work, decisions, and profits were shared equally. Although they still worked in a bicycle shop doing the same sort of labor as before, their depression disappeared. They had a newfound sense of empowerment, equality, and teamwork. Everyone at the Baltimore Bicycle Works reported that they were dramatically happier than they had been as employees in regular bicycle shops. To work in a place where you have no part in the decision-making process is a soul-killing experience, where you die a little every day instead of feeling more confident and respected. The disempowerment felt by the ordinary peon in the average workplace hierarchy leads to poor mental, physical, and emotional health.
Some people are probably reading this and thinking this all sounds very nice, but it isn’t economically practical to run all businesses as co-ops just to make people feel better. These companies would get crushed by the regular business model, right? Wrong. Hari cites a study by Cornell University that examined 320 small businesses, half of which had ordinary top-down command structures, and half of which had worker autonomy. The study revealed that businesses with worker autonomy grew four times faster than the ordinary type and had only one-third the turnover rate. Not only is cooperative economics and intentional co-op community life better for your health in every way, it is also the best way to grow an economy.
THE PEACE DIVIDEND
Think about all the investment we make each year in defense spending. U.S. military spending officially accounts for over a third of all such spending on earth. Although few countries invest in defense to the extent we do, almost every country invests their children's future in a somewhat similar manner, no matter how poor. Developing countries like Pakistan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia have spent more on military upgrades than it would have taken to fix major problems in their country. In the U.S., bridges collapse, infrastructure is crumbling, the electrical grid is nearing its limit, we don't have a single high-speed train, many rural areas are still without internet service, and in many places, public transportations systems are worse than they were in the 1930s. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Hunger and homelessness in the U.S. are major problems. Both the infant mortality rate and the mortality rate for pregnant women are shockingly high. Many parts of the U.S. resemble the Third World. Roads are falling apart. Schools are underfunded. People live in economically-depressed "food deserts." Meanwhile, the lion's share of the federal budget each year goes to the Pentagon. This disparity isn't new. President Eisenhower complained about this in his famous "Cross of Iron" speech way back in 1953, saying:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Now we are in the 2020s, and not much has changed besides the increased cost of the military hardware relative to other, more beneficial items we could have produced. In 2023, defense spending is estimated to make up 37% of the federal budget, but the true amount could be greater depending on how it is calculated. Defense spending always takes precedence over all else because, the logic goes, if we can't defend ourselves from our enemies, we won't even have a country anymore. If we remember Eisenhower's final speech about the influence of the military-industrial complex, it leads us to seriously question the standard narrative. If we believe that all the bad guys are coming to get us, this guarantees endless funding for the military contractors' Doomsday projects. This may make the CEOs and engineers of some companies very wealthy, but what good does it do for the rest of us, or for the economy as a whole? It has been accurately said that war is a zero-sum game, but the same is true for a war-based economy, even if none of the weapons are used. As one acute observer once stated while watching an impressive military parade in China: "So what? All those weapons don't do anybody any good!" What if there were a way to stop this unending walk off the plank we all feel compelled to perform? What if we could demilitarize the entire world and integrate so that there were no more hostile nations facing other hostile nations across rows of missiles? There is a way to do this, as I describe in in my book. Let's imagine what the net improvement would be to the economy if there were no further need for military spending.
When war becomes an impossibility, the economy will tremendously increase its productive output. When everyone in the economy is focused on peacetime production, everything we collectively do or make will do someone some good. We can finally cease the craziness of pouring 30-50% of our resources into the military, and instead make needed improvements that will themselves lead to more improvements. We would be able to build more homes, infrastructure, schools, and universities. The homeless could be sheltered and the jobless given training and employment. We could take what is known about safe and non-toxic home construction and make structures that could withstand fires, hurricanes, and tornadoes. We could take what is known about health and nutrition and apply it without regard for profit in order to make the next generation healthier than any in history. We could build new systems of mass transportation that employed the safest, cleanest technologies available. We could finally focus 100% of our energies on research and development to benefit people, not kill people. Technologies that have barely progressed in decades will get a turbo-boost. We could achieve a carbon-neutral world in short order and rapidly sequester the excess carbon in the air to get back to the safe 350 ppm level the planet has experienced for the past few thousand years. We would be able to make clean energy solutions that provided everyone with cheap electricity and drinkable water. We would be able to develop technologies to begin cleaning up our pollution-saturated environment to rid it of plastics, heavy metals, and forever chemicals that threaten all life on earth.
When people live in integrated co-op communities, work as teams, and share new inventions with open-source networking, it will not only be a matter of getting back the 30-50% of the economic pie we lose to non-useful military spending; it will be a whole new ball game, with increased productivity, more generosity and mutual assistance, increased cross-pollination of ideas, and more innovations of a strictly beneficial nature that led to more innovation. When we shift to a peaceful, mixed, equitable, and, fully-participatory socio-economic format, the paradigm of our economy will be 100% creative, not 50% destructive, as it is now. People will have a better education and upbringing, and will have more positive interests and abilities as a result. Things like books, tutors, teachers, professors, and classes of all kinds will be in greater demand. People will spend more time meditating and less time binge-buying things they don't really need on the internet. This will lead to a shift from people trying to make a buck doing something that harms the planet (and may harm our spirits as well) to people studying and teaching some form of Yoga. The economy will not only be more productive; it will be more efficient, more benign, and, reflecting the coming cosmic shift in human consciousness, more conducive to human wisdom across the board.
Of course, there are those today who see any future decrease in military spending as a detriment to the economy, as if things can and must continue on in the same war-footing paradigm as we have known for centuries. This is as backward a way of thinking as decrying the invention of electricity because it meant fewer jobs for lighters of oil-lamps and reduced the demand for whale-oil, forcing whalers to look for new work. Don't worry: if whalers could learn new tricks over 100 years ago, bomb-makers can also be re-trained to find new jobs in a peace-based economy. For those who think world peace is impossible, just consider the alternative. As technology develops, doesn't it become less and less likely that humanity will survive future wars? We are no longer talking about fighting with muskets and cannons. Today any country with a few laboratories and factories can manufacture nuclear weapons if they really want to. Imagine what the world would be like in another 50 years if each country that could make nuclear weapons did so full steam ahead (the way North Korea is doing today) and created as many delivery systems as possible? The odds against human survival would be slim to none. Those who think we can freeze time in what they consider the "good old days" of postwar American dominance are about as realistic as the Native Americans in the 1880s who thought the Ghost Dance would magically make all white people disappear back where they came from. The challenges we face are about to make our earth unlivable unless we drop our nostalgic fantasies and awaken to the fact that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Our house is all of humanity, not just our birth nation. We have to make peace with our neighbors. We have to make our distant neighbors our next-door neighbors. We have to work together to save the planet. We have to stop making weapons of war. When we do this, not only will the destruction of war be ended, but the combined innovative genius of humanity will be able to focus exclusively on peaceful, productive enterprises, and thereby economically outperform anything ever seen before on this planet.
THE PANAMA PAPERS
The Panama Papers were the biggest leak to date of secret files regarding how the rich and powerful hide their wealth in offshore accounts. What do these files say about our economy and the people who run it?
Mossack Fonseca is a large offshore law firm that assists wealthy people from all around the world to launder and hide their money so that it is untraceable and untaxable. In 2015, over 11 million documents from this firm were leaked to a German newspaper, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which proceeded to check the veracity of all the documents. The documents all appeared to be authentic. They described the secret offshore bank accounts of 143 politicians from around the world (and their family members), including 12 leaders. The individuals implicated in this leak came from all over the world: Ukraine, Russia, Pakistan, Iraq, France, the UK, Iceland, China, and Egypt.
How does it work? Certain small countries are technically sovereign states according to international law, but are obviously controlled by big money from larger countries. These puppet countries are independent according to the UN and can pass any law they want. These rinky-dink nations pass strict secrecy laws about banking and finance that make it impossible to force disclosure as to who owns what despite possible connections with organized crime, government corruption, insider trading, theft from the people, etc. This includes little places like Cyprus, the Bahamas, Panama, Belize, the Cayman Islands, the Seychelles, and Mauritius. Other countries that are not literally “offshore” also offer competitive advantages in terms of secrecy laws and other perks, including Hong Kong, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Singapore. The trick then is to find someone with whom you can enter into an extralegal relationship (someone you can trust or over whom you have power) to create a shell company to hide your money. This is a company that exists on paper only, has no physical location or employees, but has a secret bank account attached to it. To legally create such a company (and breathe legal “personhood” into a fictitious entity), the services of a law firm like Mossack Fonseca are employed. Through the magic sleight of hand of offshore investments, you now have millions or billions of dollars in a piggy bank that is invisible to the public and to governments. You do not have to pay any taxes on it. No one can ever prove where it came from or who it really belongs to. To an outside observer, your hidden money might as well be in another dimension. Putin, for example, is suspected to have as much as 200 billion dollars hidden away in such offshore accounts. No one knows the amount of money in the bogus entity except you (via your agent). These bogus shell companies can then “loan” money to any entity on the planet (person or corporation) according to the wishes of the board of directors (your friend). The make-believe (but legally existent) corporation where your money lives may wish to open a ski resort, buy a megayacht, build a nice chateau, or invest in amazing properties in upscale areas all around the world. By amazing coincidence, you (technically the rich and powerful friend of the person who supposedly invested the money – with no questions asked) winds up the sole beneficiary of all these “loans.”
The rich and their financial advisors would no doubt laugh at my simplistic narrative, as the true complexity of their shell game and convoluted legal and financial maneuverings must be far more involved than this, but you get the idea. While the average joe is nickel and dimed for every possible tax from cradle to grave to keep the government coffers full, the people most able to pay – the people who should be in the highest tax bracket – pay little or nothing in taxes. The same is true of the companies they own. They pass costs on to us in the form of higher prices, just as they pass on the harm they do to the environment. The elite, meanwhile, make the planet their personal playground, as in the last scene of Trading Places. To them, the world is their oyster, and they live inside the pearl. The rest of us (the 99.99% who are not in the elite class) are seen by them as inferior beings: annoying but still necessary servants and custodians.
The Panama Papers are the largest single release of private data about the semi-legal and highly objectionable practice of stashing wealth in such a way that it cannot be taxed, traced, or accounted for by governments, including representative governments that are supposed to hold their citizens accountable and tax their wealth fairly. Mossack Fonseca is the agent for over 200,000 corporations. Fonseca is just one company among many in one country among many that engages in this practice. For a slight fee, the rich and powerful avoid scrutiny and taxation. These places benefit from the fees generated, and from just having the rich and powerful coming and going: spending money in the local economy, buying real estate, setting up businesses to cater to other wealthy people, etc. As a remora gets the dregs the shark misses, these scavenger economies feed on the crumbs dropped by the rich and powerful. The ever-present rationale for allowing these distasteful banking practices to continue is: “If we don’t do it, someone else will.”
Isn’t it funny how the mainstream media barely covered the Panama Papers? Maybe that’s because a lot of their corporate board members have large offshore bank accounts that they prefer to keep out of the public eye. Don’t you just love the way our free press watches out for the little guy? The tax haven system is not a secret to governments around the world nor the elites who pull the strings to run them. Governments could put a stop to it with ease if they wanted, but why would they want to? Governments are not monolithic entities whose only intent is to serve the people; they are conglomerates, operated by ambitious elites intent on serving themselves at the expense of the public. The countless billions they want to hide come from tax evasion, insider trading, embezzlement, or links to organized crime. In one way or another it is either stolen money or blood money. It is the wealth of all the people, reapportioned and concentrated into the hands of a few by a crooked system.
The revelations of the Panama Papers are no doubt only the tip of the iceberg. These leaked documents are not just saying that the rich hide their money and do not pay their taxes. They prove that our leaders are corrupt, the governments they run are corrupt, and the taxes that all law-abiding citizens pay are being sucked away into illegal tax havens of the elite, by the elite, and for the elite. In fact, the whole world seems to be run for the benefit of the wealthiest but maintained by the toil of the non-elite, with hidden financial mechanisms to make our public money disappear as if by magic and reappear in the secret stashes of insiders in banks legally incorporated in out-of-the-way locales. The upper class have special accountants with magic wands who know how to navigate this landscape, but for the rest of us muggles, it remains an invisible realm. The Panama Papers suggest that anything is for sale and that most of those “leaders” claiming to represent the ordinary people are already bought and paid for. Is this the kind of world you want your kids to live in? If so, then by all means let’s keep our political and financial systems just the way they are at present and not change a thing.
Karl Marx developed the theory of communist economics in the mid-1800s. It is debatable exactly what was in his mind, how seriously he took his own stated philosophy, and what he actually thought it would lead to. What is clear is the horrific way his economic ideas played out on the world stage. The suffering that Marxism brought to people all around the world was on such an immense scale that it can hardly be conceived. The pain is still being felt, to differing degrees, in places like China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Laos. The repercussions of the Cold War and communism are still affecting billions. One unfortunate lingering effect of communism has been to make people see the world in black and white terms so that any criticism of the status quo makes people compare any alternative economic ideas with communism.
The wisdom-based cooperative economic system I propose might similarly be criticized by proponents of laissez faire capitalism, who think that any limits to personal wealth or attempts to share anything are evidence of full-blown Marxism. This would be as silly as calling the Danish people Nazis simply because today’s democratic socialist state of Denmark has some things in common with Hitler’s National Socialist Party (the Nazis). People who suggest that we can change our system so that there is a more even distribution of wealth are called communists. People who suggest that we assist the poor and homeless are called communists. People who argue that we should tax the wealthy much more are accused of being communists. Actually, the only people who can be legitimately called communists are those who agree with the teachings of Marxism. Unfortunately, to our irresponsible media and generally uneducated public, this unfair moniker often sticks. The specter of communism forces people into thinking there is a choice between only two options, one of which is obviously inferior. In truth, we have an infinite number of options in redesigning our social, economic, and political systems to give our descendants the future they deserve. Let’s analyze the errors of communism and the stark differences between it and the system I propose.
First, communism is anti-democratic. The system only took over in Russia because of the willingness of a small minority to use any ruthless means to terrorize the population. The majority was afraid to get involved, and the government was seized by people who cared nothing for the will of the people. A self-perpetuating party was created that patted itself on the back and believed it could do no wrong. When a one-party dictatorship rules a nation, the end they have in mind always justifies the means (so far as they are concerned). This means a society must be closed, controlled, manipulated, surveilled, and threatened with prison or execution if they suggest an alternative (democratic) system. Cooperative economics is the opposite. In order for it to work, direct democracies must be established in all communities. This requires freedom of speech, travel, communication, and education.
Second, communism is atheistic and opposed to all forms of religion. In Russia, churches were destroyed and the church outlawed for a long time, until Stalin felt he needed their support in World War Two. In China and Tibet, thousands of monks were taken out and shot. In the Cultural Revolution, most of the temples were razed. I believe our best hopes for world peace lie in a system of intentional multifaith and multiracial communities wherein the core principles and practices of the major religions are recognized and encouraged. This means that spiritual improvement must be recognized as the main goal of life, and that people should follow in the footsteps of the sages to develop wisdom. This would lead to the serious cultivation of inner virtues like compassion, patience, calm, generosity, empathy, and stability. These qualities come from meditation and introspection, not ranting and raving about the supposed correctness of theories written on paper.
Third, communism is highly-centralized. This partly stems from the fact that it is dictatorial and non-democratic, but even in a system that claims to be democratic, when decisions are made by a political elite, located in a central capital, and controlling an overly-strong federal government, it creates a hierarchical system where the people with power become a class apart, removed from the real world. The leaders come to think they know what is best for others. They stop bothering to do reality checks as they plan the future of the nation. In order for direct democracy to work, power must be as decentralized as reasonably possible. At the same time, checks and balances must be created to prevent fragmentation, ensure that conflicts are peacefully resolved, and ensure that the larger system can function in an efficient manner.
Fourth, communism is, from its very inception, a philosophy that plans to overthrow the governments of the world by violent revolution. Revolutions can in some cases be justified (as in the case of the American Revolution). Communism, however, did not consider the need for revolution against the world’s governments on a case by case basis; it demanded that all governments be overthrown. This is a case of the end justifying any means, no matter how horrific. Cooperative economics, on the other hand, believes that peaceful compromise is always possible and that violence is never a good way to settle disputes. This does not mean that we should be pacifists to the degree that we allow those who are willing to use violence to lord it over us. It means that with the right education and the right system of checks and balances, we can create a culture of peace where violence is unnecessary and war is a thing of the past.
Fifth, communism makes science the new religion, and views the mechanist theory as sacrosanct. The mechanist theory claims that all things have a complete physical or chemical explanation. This implies an independent existence and essentially repudiates the discoveries of quantum mechanics. It makes the existence of a spirit impossible and therefore views spiritual practices as nonsensical. If science is deified, humans become the servants of science. In the cooperative economic view I propose, science is a tool that serves humanity. It can be used for good, but only if we ourselves develop the wisdom to use it properly. The mechanist theory is a necessary assumption for scientific models, but reality is more properly understood as a consciousness-based field created by the minds of all sentient beings, in accordance with the results of scientific experiments.
The communist world had an interesting effect on the West. The corporate elite benefitted from the strength of the communist world because it led to the growth of the military-industrial complex, and the subsequent flow of public funds into corporate hands. Simply put: communism was good for business. Ironically, this meant the wealthy power-brokers of Europe and the U.S. had a vested interest in seeing the communist boogeyman succeed up to a point. Communism was bad for unions because as long as the Marxist threat seemed real, a large segment of the population saw them as pinkos or traitors for going on strike, or even for having a union. This also gave the rich elite an incentive to root for communist expansion as a means to keep anti-union sentiment strong. Among intellectuals, communism was seen as a tantalizing alternative to the world of robber-barons and the abuses of mega-corporations. This flirtation with communism by people like Oppenheimer backfired. It fanned the flames of the Red Scare and exacerbated the black and white narrative that anyone not 100% thrilled with all aspects of the “The American Way” had to be a commie infiltrator. This “love it or leave it” mentality leads us into a false menu of only two choices: communism or plutocracy. Recognizing that a house is dilapidated and antiquated means we can refurbish and repair; making such criticisms of the status quo does not automatically mean a person is in favor of going back to living in caves. We can call a person a “cavist” every time they suggest a structural change to the crumbling architecture in which we live, but the term would have no real meaning unless the person in question actually advocated a return to an underground existence. We need to step out of this archaic, knee-jerk way of thinking and reimagine the entire question of what an economy should look like, free from assumptions, insinuations, or propaganda.
The belief that communism could ever solve human problems was insane. I tend to doubt that Marx himself even believed the words he wrote. It is a comic book joke that does not take into account human nature, economic realities, or spiritual wisdom. Unfortunately, it convinced generations of Western intellectuals that it would be the salvation of all. For example, Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) was a lifelong socialist who believed in the coming revolution. He said that the solution was for the people to ultimately think of themselves as indistinguishable from the state. His thinking mirrors that of Marx, who suggested that after the people’s revolution, the workers would own the means of production, a worker’s paradise would follow, and that this would culminate in the withering away of the state. None of this happened. The workers were dominated from above by distant party leaders and forced to toil in slave-labor conditions. The common people, far from having a utopia, were barred from forming their own unions, since the “union” of the U.S.S.R. claimed a monopoly in this department. Far from withering away, the state became a monstrous totalitarian dictatorship that eviscerated all human rights. Orwell’s idea that the people would become the state shows that he failed to learn the lesson of the Russian Revolution: that the leaders of a centralized revolution would be the absolute bosses, not the people. The people would not become the state, nor would they have anything to do with the running of the country, nor would they feel anything but alienation from their own country and its distant leaders. Those who disagreed with their rulers were either killed or sent to the gulags.
The only way to make people feel that they themselves are the government is to put everything into a human scale. We have to create direct democracy in every small community, within autonomous regions, and within larger areas the size of states or nations. When every cooperative community is like a union unto itself and all communities have a good-neighbor policy toward one another, then and only then can we reach the sensible outcome, as stated by Marx, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” This isn’t communism or capitalism; it’s just common sense sharing and caring. The way to accomplish this rosy picture definitely isn’t Marxism. Our current version of corporate capitalism isn’t fully reaching this goal either, as a visit to an average downtown area demonstrates. The scores of homeless encampments and the department stores under siege by looters show that we have plenty of work to do. There are other options besides (A) just doing things the same old way or (B) resorting to communism. Cooperative economics based on intentional communities is the only way to solve our problems. Cooperative economics is the opposite of communism in all important ways: it is reality-based, democratic, decentralized, spiritual in orientation, and peaceful in its aims and methods. It guarantees basic human freedoms – including freedom of education – and provides a means for people to provide human rights to all members of their communities because it prevents them from being compartmentalized from one another, as has been the case in every other form of political and economic system so far.
THE REALITY OF SAVING THE ENVIRONMENT
Since Earth Day began in 1970, we have been increasingly aware that our modern way of life is not sustainable. Anyone who looks at the world objectively must realize that pollution, climate change, and the loss of habitats are such serious problems that they threaten to virtually end human civilization as we know it. The unanswered question is: what can we do about it? I assert that all the solutions put forth thus far are partial solutions at best, because all of them miss the real point. If we are to become serious about saving the planet (and ourselves with it), we must fundamentally alter ourselves, our societies, and our cultures in ways far more profound than we have yet dared to imagine.
What am I talking about? To begin to understand, we must take a thought experiment. Imagine you are a completely open-minded traveler venturing across time and space. Imagine that you pay a visit to the Victorian mansion of a wealthy British industrialist in the year 1923. As intelligent and logical as the man might be, his view would be warped by the following rock-solid convictions: (1) the British Empire was a good thing that would last forever, (2) the British monarchy was a good thing that would last forever, (3) the British class system was a good thing that would last forever, and (4) the laws of supply and demand required that rich industrialists and poor laborers continue to interact in exactly the same way forever, in order to maintain profit and national prosperity. If you pointed out the suffering of the poor workers who labored in his factories, this would have angered him. He would have asked if you were a communist and argued that if the workers were given more wages, the company would no longer be profitable, which would lead to the collapse of the entire capitalist system. To point out the fact that fossil fuel use was on track to cause global warming would have made him confused and dismissive. The threat of global warming, despite being a scientific certainty, was too far off on the horizon for anyone to take such claims seriously.
Continuing this experiment, imagine that you are traveling forward in time to the present, where you interview a contemporary Western citizen and see if they are any more reasonable than the man from the 1920s. The person from the 2020s would disagree with the 1920s-era industrialist on most issues, and when it came to the question of global warming, they would be fully informed and concerned about the problem. The strange part of the conversation would come when you asked them what they were doing to stop the triple-whammy existential threats of climate change, chemical pollution, and loss of habitat. They would meekly describe how they try to recycle most of their bottles and cans, turn off lights when they leave a room, or bring reusable bags to the market. If you asked them about what they were doing about the increasing use of fossil fuels worldwide, they would blink and ask pathetically what they could do about it. If you asked them about their part in the larger socio-economic system that perpetuates this environmental devastation, they would be puzzled. Just as the 1920s industrialist had his rock-solid convictions about the way things were meant to be (which seem silly to most of us now), so the man of the 2020s has rock-solid, unquestioned assumptions. He imagines that government-taxed, individual ownership of plots of land is the only way to interact with the earth, that each family must make deals to trade time for money, and that as a consumer, we can only spend that money for items like cars, food, and airplane tickets. It only seems right that things should be this way, as this is the only way they have ever been. Private corporations with the same rights as people can then expand without limit in order to provide these consumers with the things they want and need. These companies may make pollution, yes, but that was part of the price of keeping the economy going. It seems only natural that the consumers live in families that are disconnected from the community around them, and make economic decisions in an individual, self-serving way. The man from the 2020s wonders what more can possibly be done. He knows he and others could get together and vote to pressure government officials to regulate corporations more closely, but he knows also that the corporations would fight back with vast sums of money to influence public opinion and pay off politicians. The modern man becomes depressed because he understands the grave nature of the threat in an abstract way, yet he can find no concrete means of grappling with the problem. Finally, he becomes distracted with an app on his phone and wanders off, having forgotten all about the strange traveler from across time and space.
There was one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, (“The Neutral Zone,” season one, episode 26) where some Americans were revived after having been cryogenically frozen for almost 400 years. One of them was a wealthy investor. He was anxious to find out how his investment portfolio was doing, and he asked the captain what kind of salary he made. The captain had to explain to the man that the economics of the 24th century are different, but no further explanation was given. This is only science fiction, but it brings up a good question: what will the economic system of the future look like? If we know that our current socio-economic systems are completely failing to create environmental sustainability (and are essentially making sustainability impossible), then what will we do over the next few years to correct the problem before it is too late? Hundreds of years from now, a whole new reality will have emerged. Assuming we save ourselves and create something sustainable, what will it look like?
How do we begin to make the right changes? How can we even know what they are? How can we break free from our habitual thinking patterns about interactions with the land, with one another, with systems of production and consumption, and with our governments – and create something brand new that works for everyone and saves the planet? As it is, we are insisting on continuing a way of life that, in many ways, is a nostalgic, illogical continuation of the unsustainable 1920s pattern, even as we hurtle towards environmental collapse on an epic scale. Unlike the people from 100 years ago, we can no longer pretend we do not know this is happening. For those who are not too stubbornly entrenched in maintaining every aspect of their life in the old, unsustainable manner to even consider change, the question remains: what should we do differently? The answer: almost everything. Direct democracy is part of the solution, as is cooperative economics, as is the creation of intentional cooperative communities that share a common purpose and prioritize a small carbon footprint. Investment in new carbon-neutral or carbon-negative technologies is part of the solution (including carbon sequestration), but this must be done on a scale so large it has to be part and parcel of a whole new way of life, at least for the foreseeable future.
All these necessary social and technical shifts can only succeed if we first change our way of thinking. We need to align our mindset (our way of thinking of ourselves, the world around us, and the purpose of life) with the spiritual wisdom of the sages from around the world. We cannot progress as a species if each individual continues to think of themselves before others, to selfishly accumulate property, and to pursue all the comforts that we collectively agree to constitute a “high standard of living.” If we are not serious about saving the environment and ourselves, we are essentially saying we would rather commit suicide than stop prioritizing comfort and convenience above all. If we are serious about giving our grandchildren a world as beautiful as the one our ancestors knew, we must make immediate changes – in ourselves, our daily culture, our communities, our societies, and of course in our economies and governments. The change must be complete and must radiate outwards from our hearts. It cannot come from political leaders or from a few cosmetic alterations in laws, habits, or buying practices. It will not be easy, but it must be done.