A SHORT TALK ON DEMATERIALISM
Presented at The Other Economic Summit, July 8, 1990, Houston, Texas
by Thomas L. Wayburn, PhD
We all know that the rich and powerful oppress the poor and weak – individuals by employment and welfare, nations by trade and foreign aid. With the collapse of many socialist bureaucracies and the fragmentation of large confederacies along ethnic lines, the time is ripe for the multinational corporations, answerable to no one, to step in and take over, concentrating the wealth and power into the hands of a few billionaires, men who are destroying the earth, presumably because they imagine their posterity will be able to escape to outer space. The multinational corporations do not tolerate cultural diversity or behavioral deviance. Variation in lifestyle and independence in thought are disappearing. Dissent is powerless because it is overwhelmed by mass media; but, if it ever becomes dangerous, watch what happens.
Americans think they are free. In reality they are only free to behave like everyone else. They think the United States is a democracy. The United States is a plutocracy. The flag stands for imperialism, political conservatism, and state religionism, no doubt because the historical Jesus carried the Stars and Stripes into Jerusalem when he established Israel as an American protectorate.
We have imperialism, colonialism, multinational corporations, unfair trading practices, trade wars, catastrophic economic cycles, terrorism, and war. We have unfair employment practices, unemployment, poverty, crime, class war, millions in prisons, capital punishment, hunger, starvation, epidemic disease, child labor, child abuse, infant mortality, overpopulation, homelessness, helplessness, and hopelessness. We have bureaucratic tyranny, political corruption, health care crises, banking crises, failure of legal systems, and institutionalized injustice. We have commercialism, fads, fashions, conspicuous consumption, the dehumanization and debasement of culture, conspiracies and dishonesty in business and even in science, corruption in academia, and the disappearance of ethics. We have racism, bigotry, intolerance, illiteracy, incompetence, ignorance, superstition, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, religionism, scientism, sexual and pharmacological prudery, phony morality, egotism, patriotism, censorship, repression of dissent, and the disappearance of independent thought. We have vagrancy, migrancy, urbanism, urban decay, urban flight, pollution of air, water, soil, and food, radiation, sound, thermal, and motion pollution, exhaustion of available energy sources, rape of the land, sea, and air, cruelty to animals, and the extinctions of entire species.
If we allow these problems to fester, our species will continue to live on the brink of extinction or actually become extinct. The G7 ministers think that only minor adjustments are necessary. George Bush thinks that economic expansion and environmental protection are compatible. Even the Socialist Workers Party is asking only for jobs, housing, healthcare, education, human rights, and self-determination, an end to racism, bigotry, intolerance, and pollution, treatment of drug abuse, and dismissal of third-world debt. Sounds good, but the goals are inconsistent and not nearly good enough to save the world, except that to achieve self-determination the measures recommended in this paper will have to be adopted, but they are not stated specifically in the SWP agenda. Jesse Jackson's agenda falls somewhere in-between.
There is a huge gap between what should be done and what can be done in the political climate of 1990. By explaining to our friends, our students, and our readers what will happen if what should be done is not done, we can narrow the gap between what should be done and what people will accept as a possibility. If we understand what should be done, we can evaluate events and proposed measures according to whether they make what should be done more likely to be done or not; so, futuristic ideas are useful now.
In this paper materialism is defined to be the belief, or any system based on the belief, that people should compete for material wealth and that material wealth may be used as a reward for achievement or good behavior or as a measure of success. Some people use the stuff that stands between life and death to keep score in a game! Materialism replaces volition by coercion. Most people don't do what they want to do; they do what they must do. Market economies are intrinsically materialistic. Each of the problems cited above can be linked to materialism. Materialism gives rise to a ruling class that is a subset of a money and power seeking class.
People do horrible things to become rich and powerful. Business, i.e., dividing up the pie, consumes too much earth and human effort and wastes too much sun (when it shines on an airport runway, for example). Thus the three economic resources (sun, earth, and human effort) are misapplied. People do horrible things after they become rich, e.g., subvert democracies. Look at American politics.
Protection of the environment requires a planned economy because market economies have a tendency (perhaps a need) to expand and they require essentially an infinite supply of natural resources, which is inconsistent with permanence. The exigencies of competition conflict with respect for the environment, and no one can restrain commerce, which "corrupts everything it touches", cf., TV. Economic growth, with its cars and planes, superhighways and shopping centers, feeds on and encourages population growth, with its concomitant conflicts in the use of land. Both together contribute to the irreversible destruction of the earth in strict accordance with the second law of thermodynamics, to which there is no appeal. We can show that economic growth is impossible without unacceptable environmental deterioration. We need economic shrinkage, which can be achieved by eliminating business.
Many people believe that communism is pure totalitarianism and capitalism is pure freedom and that we must choose one or the other. The notion is sweeping the world that, since planned economies have failed, market economies represent the only hope and, indeed, the only possibility. These are very dangerous beliefs and they tend to put an end to all intelligent discourse.
If we make strict binary choices between (i) freedom and totalitarianism, (ii) market economy and planned economy, (iii) private ownership and collective ownership, we get, not two only, but 2 to the 3rd power or 8 pure political-economic systems. I reject totalitarianism on humanistic, utilitarian, and aesthetic grounds and I have already shown why I reject market economies. This leaves two pure systems: freedom-planning-private and freedom-planning-collective. I believe we are in a position, now, to reject state ownership because it leads to the concentration of power into the hands of a large, inefficient, corrupt, and tyrannical bureaucracy that appropriates an unfair portion of the wealth to itself, which, in turn, demoralizes the workers. The last thing a bureaucracy has in mind is to "wither away". I believe that the means of producing goods and providing services, including government services, should be owned by the people as private individuals. Workers would own the enterprises for which they work. One worker – one share; one share – one vote. Clearly, this sort of combination of private and collective ownership is not without complications.
Schumacher does not address the problem of natural leaders, as discussed by Shaw in the Preface to The Millionairess. Those of us who are not natural leaders may not wish to be dominated by those who are. I hope that no one believes that a rich and powerful leader does not impose upon the freedom of an ordinary person. I can't even take the shortest route home because of the G7 ministers – trivial, but symbolic.
The history of society can be analyzed in terms of cycles of corruption and reform. People become powerful. Power corrupts. Forces for reform gather. The powerful are swept away and replaced by reformers. The reformers grow powerful. Power corrupts. … It seems as though the cycles will never end. Permit me to suggest that the way to break the cycle is to get rid of the leaders. Leaders, after all, are characterized by a talent for becoming leaders and a preoccupation with retaining power. We don't need anyone to boss us around. According to William Morris, no one is good enough to be someone else's boss.
We trust a random process to select juries that determine whether a human being lives or dies. Rather, let us employ some sort of random or quasi-random process to select public representatives for our government and private representatives for private enterprises for terms of finite length. This will prevent the establishment of a governmental class or a manager class or a ruling class. The electoral process might be relegated to removing people from office. Descartes said, "Good sense is of all things in the world the most widely distributed, for everybody thinks he is so well supplied with it that even those most difficult to please in all other matters never desire more of it than they already possess." What makes this funny is that people believe they have good sense whether they do or not, but what I believe is that they usually do. Nearly anyone in possession of the best information, rather than state sponsored lies, is capable of making good decisions. Public servants selected randomly might not be worse than what we have now.
Randomly selected representatives will interpret the will of all of the people, as expressed frequently by modem or phone, in the case of government. They will represent us in international relations and coordinate the relations between a very small non-intrusive government and the private institutions that compute various economic plans and perform other services formerly performed by bureaucrats. The representatives will interpret the will of the workers in private enterprise. I am not too concerned about the details of the random or quasi-random process of selection. People should not be elected to a sequence of increasingly important offices. We are trying to prevent the rise of leaders. People could be removed from office before the end of their terms by referendum, which should be easy to initiate in case someone isn't working out. In a changed world, this might not be as ugly as an impeachment usually is. Short terms might make the learning period seem disproportionately long and long terms might make it excessively difficult for representatives to return to "normal" life. In any case, no matter how popular or successful, after a fixed term expires ... back to "private" life. Perhaps institutions might afford a learning period before and a readjustment period after. Perhaps office holders might be selected from among people who had received a suitable education, but that could lead to abuses.
Excess wealth leads to excess political power, moreover the path of materialism leads directly to doom; therefore, money and commerce must be abolished as soon as nearly everyone wants to have them abolished. In a dematerialist (anti-competitionist or non-materialistic) society, housing will be distributed equitably. Food, health care, communications, tools, household goods, clothing, and the few standard luxuries that contribute to a decent life will be free, with some temporary limitations. In a scarcity situation, we, all of us, might employ some sort of rationing, implemented by means of a national credit card that accounts for material goods individually to discourage excessive consumption and hoarding, not without some danger. Goods might be denominated in currency units, but, in order to facilitate a complete change of viewpoint, it might be better if we abandoned the concept of money altogether. In a non-scarcity situation, we might dispense with individual accounting. If our inclinations become more spiritual, presumably because of education in the humanities, or, at least, more rational, we might decide to use the savings effected by eliminating business and improving technology to reduce our impact on the environment rather than to increase our material abundance.
Leadership leads to materialism, which leads to doom; therefore, let us reject leadership and give our children the education they need to take charge of their own lives, rather than an education that prepares them to serve leaders.
Since big government seems to lead to bureaucratic tyranny, we shall privatize all but a minimal government. Public servants will be selected by a random or quasi-random process until a finite term comes to an end or, perhaps, until they are voted out of office, whichever comes first. Naturally we have a right to refuse to serve.
Private enterprises will be owned in equal shares by their workers and they will be operated isocratically with organizers and communicators selected as above.
Since our material well-being will be independent of what we do, no one can coerce us or exploit us. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for one person to acquire power over another. People who wish to dissent will have the same access to the media and the minds of children in school as everyone else. The idea of this system is to replace coercion, hierarchy, and privilege with freedom, equality, and justice by turning society inside out. Dematerialism is really nothing more than faith in the essential goodness of man, for which, I suppose, we will need to provide some sort of scientific proof.
The minimal changes required to save the world, then, are an end to money and commerce, worker ownership of the means of production, an end to big government, and an end to leadership, which is really a eulogistic term for bosses. I hope no one rejects these ideas without showing why they are wrong. If we do what is only "realistic", we may end up doing something that is useless or harmful.
July 7, 1990
Appendix A: Toward Axiomatic Morality
In spite of all the bad things that have been done in the name of morality, I still believe that we need a moral basis for society; but, in order to have a chance for wide acceptance and to accommodate a wide spectrum of behavioral choices, the basis should be minimal. I propose a set of three moral axioms by means of which the correctness or incorrectness of any proposed action may be determined, possibly with an expert system. Axiom 1 is, roughly speaking, respect for the freedom of others; Axiom 2, respect for the environment including animals; Axiom 3, respect for truth, which must and can be defined satisfactorily. In my view, moral assumptions should be judged on the basis of reasonableness (aesthetics) and utility. I don't think the words morality and truth should be the exclusive property of bigots and liars.
The fundamental principle of morality, which allows one to be free to do anything one pleases so long as the freedom of others is not abridged, is the prehistoric basis for society, giving everyone his or her own share and space. I believe that respect for the freedom of others implies equal distribution of material wealth, since excess wealth can be used to abridge the freedom of the other, in one case by purchasing excess political power, in another by bidding up the price of land and acquiring unfair exclusive access to part of the earth's surface, in another by holding a stronger negotiating position in an economic transaction, which might be the employment of one person by another, a practice that is revolting to many thoughtful people.
The implications of the environmental axiom were discussed above. Market economies, materialism, commerce, and trade are not compatible with the survival of the human race on this earth. A flight to outer space is impractical and unethical.
Respect for truth implies free discourse, including free access to media and open forums for debate where anyone who wishes can propose or rebut. Although many statements referred to as truth are lies, we can discern objective truth on the basis of reproducibility and derivability, provided we pay close attention to premises. We must examine our prejudices as well as our fundamental philosophical assumptions. All of us must become skilled in logic and in spotting fallacies and hidden assumptions. We damn well better be able to recognize a proof when we see one. Inner truth, with its concomitant respect for beauty (I don't mean glamour), is attainable as well. Then, in the schools, we can begin to teach the truth instead of subservience to the economy.
Appendix B: How Materialism Affects the Four Economic Classes
The harm done by this class was discussed above. Hopefully, the members of this class will enhance their lives by joining the class of people who love their work, which should become the basis for a classless society.
I believe that capitalism is preventing people from having abundant material wealth unless their particular talents and inclinations are disposed toward acquiring it. How can artists, farmers who love the soil, scientists, and other people who love their work compete with real estate developers and investment bankers in an adversary society where money is everything! Either they give up ennobling and satisfying activities or give up power over their own lives and the affairs of their nation. Many sell out to the dictates of commerce and everybody suffers.
The plight of the worker is familiar. If people did not have to work to live, it would be impossible to exploit them and workplaces would have to be adapted to the requirements of human beings and their natural inclinations toward satisfying work would be encouraged. Let us replace coercion with volition.
As for the people who can't cope with materialism, life is pretty bleak. Some of the disenfranchised do horrible things, mostly to each other. The disappearance of this class should be the first priority of society.
Appendix C: Some Objections
What people really want, rather than wealth and power, is satisfaction, which comes only from spiritual growth and creative endeavor. One need only observe the behavior of people who are actually achieving satisfaction to verify this spiritual law.
People who love their work will work, or shall we call it play? Also, people who feel a responsibility to society or are just plain reasonable. Hopefully, education will make both work and leisure enjoyable and fulfilling. Also, education might make our system of morals very attractive on aesthetic and utilitarian grounds, but children will be taught to examine the fundamental philosophical assumptions closely and often. The most onerous work is most amenable to automation. It is more efficient to invest in technology, humanized technology, than in labor, therefore, more and more labor will be translated into technology, which is more fun anyway, although I probably could not convince a carpenter of that, but there will be plenty to do with our hands. Finally, it is efficient to invest in science before investing in technology. Thus, more and more human effort will be transferred to science, which, according to many, is the most fun of all, especially if one doesn't have to write proposals or take any flak from the system.
Planning will be an exercise in applied math, not applied politics, in mixed-integer nonlinear programming, for example. The planners will have the power to find the best solutions given data supplied by the people, i.e., no more power than anyone else. The reason that plans computed independently will be nearly interchangeable is that everyone will have access to the best scientific techniques, there being no reason to withhold trade secrets.
People who do not accept the system of morality that determines acceptable behavior must be treated with the respect due to sovereign heads of states. They are not criminals. People who accept the moral basis but violate it are criminals, but we will be able to afford to expend some effort in dealing with them humanely because crime, as a manifestation of class and race warfare, will not be ubiquitous.
Thus, the average person is unfit to serve as a spokesperson, communicator, or organizer. We expect that the impediments to educating everyone to the full extent of his or her capacity will be removed by telling the truth in the schools and by educating people in their own best interests rather than in the best interests of business. People who feel they are unfit are free to refuse to serve. But, most important of all, no one will wield the power or carry the responsibility that leaders carry in government and business today. These jobs, for which people are selected randomly, have only slightly more visibility than other jobs and that is the only circumstance from which society needs to be protected.
Appendix D: A World-Bettering Plan
Because of the defects of socialism and capitalism, a new system is needed. The four tasks that must be accomplished to initiate any world-bettering plan are: (i) characterizing the tentative "ideal" or target world, which is provisional and subject to updates, (ii) proving by thought experiments, computer simulations, sociological experiments, and by construction that there exists a feasible path of gradual and continuous improvement connecting this world with the ideal world, (iii) convincing people that the results of (i) and (ii) are correct, and (iv) embarking upon the path. Without an ideal to which we can refer we would never know what the next social change should be since we would never know if we were getting closer to the ideal or not. I favor social evolution through thousands of small, but significant, changes, of which all are in the right direction. I do not believe that the end justifies the means. Also, the process must be adaptive, i.e., sensitive to new information.