The Fool on the Hill: Manifesto for a good society

Wednesday, 17th February 2022

Manifesto for a good society

This essay grows out of a quite minor Twitter thread, which is here.

Scotland now provides period products for free, to everyone who needs them.

That's an incredibly powerful thing. The fact that Scotland does it - the fact that Scotland is the first nation in the world to do it - makes me proud to be Scots. It is a seed from which the good society can grow.

So let's generalise from that. What is the underlying principle here, and how do we apply it to create the good society?

What, then, do we need to live with dignity? These are some of the important things

  1. Freedom from oppression and coercion;
  2. Freedom to develop a web mutual relationships with others;
  3. Free access to knowledge, to opportunities to learn, and to tools;
  4. A home: somewhere to live, which provides shelter, privacy, and security;
  5. Sufficient palatable food and water to sustain health and strength;
  6. Free access to clothing to meet the exigencies of the local climate and to conform to local social norms;
  7. Care in periods of illness or when, for other reasons, the individual does not feel able to care for themself.

What do we need to give to the good society, in order that it can provide us with these things? Well, society is just the collectivity of us, more or less formalised. What we owe to society is that we participate in it; that we take our share, as far as we are able, in providing and securing these things which are the necessities of a dignified life, to those around us.

All of which is a long winded way of saying, "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs."

So let's try and express this in concrete terms, to create a programme to get from where we are now, to a fully realised good society.

To start, I need to define what I mean in this essay by society. And what I mean - at least in the transitional phase - is inevitably a bit ambiguous, is inevitably two different things; and perhaps, given human fallibility, to prevent holes in the net through which individuals can fall, it will always need to be those two things.

The first is a natural, informal society: the web of freely chosen mutual affective and companionable relationships between individual people. This is the ideal meaning of society.

The second is a formal, institutional society: a tessellation of corporate bodies, covering people and territory, such that at any time every person is a member of (at least) one such corporate body, and is within the territory which is the responsibility of one such corporate body. In an ideal world, I'd like to see this formal, institutional layer be as light touch as possible; I'd like to see it gradually wither away. But some vestige of it must remain, to ensure that the friendless, the unpopular, the outcast - for whatever reason - are still guaranteed access to those things which they need to live with dignity.

 The Commune

Fixed, permanent, territorially located societies are not an ideal; they're an expedient, and they're an expedient that I at least hope will be transitional. But by dividing up the land into distinct territories without debatable interstices, you solve the problem as to which unit is responsible. Most settled people have some tradition of such social units. Marx, using the French word, called them "communes," hence communism. In Britain, we'd traditionally call them "parishes." I'm considering the same sorts of unit as Marx was considering, so in this essay I will use the same word.

So, communes aren't an ideal, but they seem at least transitionally necessary. What is necessary to prevent them from becoming an impediment?

Well, first I think they need to be a last line of defence, with very little role in the every day running of society. Their role emerges when someone's needs are not being met by the natural, informal societies of the locality, or when a dispute emerges which cannot be settled by those natural, informal societies, and is principally to bring the people of the locality to discuss how to resolve the situation.

The only more permanent role I see for the commune is to maintain a land register, which is to say who (individual or collective) is responsible, under what conditions, for which subdivision of the land within the territory.

Communes should not - must not - be immutable. It should always be possible by democratic decision in each for two communes to merge; it should always be possible by democratic decision for one commune to split into two. I see the ideal size of a commune as somewhere between one thousand and ten thousand people, probably larger in areas of denser population and smaller in sparser. But this absolutely needs to be driven by the people of the place; it cannot be imposed from outside.

The Cooperative

Many things which need to be done require the cooperation of groups of people, sometimes people with different skills, sometimes people in different places. For example, a secondary school needs teachers in many disciplines, who co-operate together to provide an education for children; a railway needs navvies and engineers to build and maintain the track, drivers to drive the trains, and signalmen and station staff who need to be distributed across a wide area.

I've chosen both these examples because they will typically cover an area larger than a typical commune. Cooperatives - groups of people which exist to cooperate on a common activity or enterprise - will often be drawn from more than one commune. Every person is a member of at least one - but normally just one - commune, but may be a member of multiple cooperatives.

Cooperatives are voluntary organisations. No-one is forced to join them; but if there aren't enough people in the railway cooperative to run the railway, it won't run, which may prompt people who need to use the railway to think about whether they should join it.

Money and Exchange

It's my strong belief that the idea of exchange, of trading, of this for that, of any strong notion of personal property, is corrosive and damaging and we need to abandon it; but I know that's too radical for many people. In what follows I'll try to explain how a society would work both with a money economy and with, as I would strongly prefer, a gift economy.

 The Money Economy and the Good Society

But there's a major point about an exchange based economy - for the sake of simplicity, let's call it a money economy - which needs to be made clearly. So long as there is a money economy, disparities of wealth will automatically and inevitably increase over time, until you have an economy - as we do now - of a few billionaires, and a huge mass of people who are abjectly poor.

Let me demonstrate.

Suppose one person has a warehouse containing ten tons of food. Suppose another person has no food, and a hungry family. The poor person is desperate to buy food today, because their family is hungry today. The rich person feels no urgency to sell food; instead, they can choose to wait and sell it at a higher price later, when more people are hungry. So the poorer person is forced to offer more than they can afford for the food, even if that inevitably means starvation tomorrow, because the alternative is starvation today. Look at what is happening now in Afghanistan if you don't believe me.

Or suppose one person has a house they don't live in, in addition to the house they do live in. Two other people seek to rent the house. The first of them is rich, has substantial wealth; the owner can see that that person has no difficulty in affording the rent. The second is poor, lives on the margins, is in insecure employment. The owner of the house is a rational actor: if both these prospective tenants are offering the same rent, then of course the owner will choose the richer tenant. So the poorer tenant has to offer more than the richer, or be homeless.

This is how markets work. This is not a bug, it's a feature. Markets - exchange, quid pro quo - always, progressively, automatically, inevitably, disentropise wealth: they transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. Without limit.

Therefore, I claim, it is impossible for a money economy ever to be a good society.

The Nature of the Gift Economy

The nature of a gift is that it is freely given. If it isn't freely given, it isn't a gift. The nature of a gift economy is that people do the things that they individually want to do, and gift the fruits of their labour to other people in the economy, freely, not expecting any direct payment, any quid pro quo, any keeping of accounts; but in the knowledge that the things they themselves need will probably be gifted by others within the economy.

The reasons people do things is up to them. They may do things because they find those things interesting to do, or because they experience a feeling of mastery for doing them, or because they need them to be done, or because they perceive that others need them to be done. But no one does anything because someone else tells them to. No one, in a gift economy, has authority to tell anyone else to do anything. There may be voluntary coordination between people working on a common project or working in similar fields, but it is just that: voluntary.

What happens if there's overproduction of some thing? Well, the people who enjoy doing that thing least probably stop doing it, or find something else to do. What happens when there's a shortage of some thing? Well, some people who aren't too busy with other stuff probably notice there's a shortage, and do something about it.

But there is no command, no control, no central authority. Things happen organically, through individual voluntary action or through voluntary cooperation and coordination; or else they don't happen. And if no one minds the fact that they don't happen, then probably they weren't needed in the first place.

That may sound dreadfully inefficient, until you think about all the work it saves. There are no managers. There are no accountants. There are no salespeople. There are no rent collectors. There is no insurance industry, or financial services industry. There is no treasury; there are no taxes. There's no one investigating fraud. A very large proportion of the work which has to be done in a money economy simply doesn't have to be done at all, which frees up an awful lot of time in which to be a little bit inefficient.

All this depends on a social expectation that people will not take more than they need, and will return to the store any durable things they no longer need, but that does not seem to me problematic. And it should be a socially normal thing that if one person needs a bicycle, and another has a bicycle which they very rarely use, that the first person should be able to ask the second for the bicycle.

And everyone - everyone - gets to do what they want to do; including nothing at all, if that is truly what they want to do.

Meeting people's needs

In the introduction I described a set of needs which everyone has, which a good society must meet. Some of these (freedom from coercion, freedom of association, free access to knowledge) are intangible, and can be provided simply by a set of social norms and expectations; others are material. Let's tackle those.

Home

People need homes. Their need for homes may vary over their lifetimes, but for the majority of their lives, individuals, or freely associating bonded groups, need homes.

In the perfect, natural society model, when someone reached a stage in life where they felt a need for a home on their own, the society would either allocate them an existing, unoccupied home, or build them a new one. I hope that's what would normally just happen. The fallback is that the person may apply to the commune for a home.

Once a person has a home, they may voluntarily give it up, if they choose to do so; for example if they wish to travel, or to move in with someone else. But otherwise, it is theirs for the rest of their life, with very strong security of tenure. People should not fear being deprived of their home. This means, of course, that there can be no rental or land tax due on the home, even if we have a money economy.

Repairs and maintenance to the home should normally, I think, be the responsibility of the tenant and the the tenant's immediate social circle; but in situations where the tenant isn't able to carry out maintenance, then it must devolve first onto the natural society, and, if the need isn't met there, then onto the commune.

If a person leaves their home empty for a substantial period of time - perhaps more than a year - then it may be reasonable for members of the natural society, or for the commune to ask the person whether they still need the home. When a tenant dies, the home is not automatically heritable by anyone. Rather, the natural society, or in case of dispute the commune, will reallocate it to someone who is in need of one (who might be a relative of the deceased tenant, but they would have no automatic privilege).

There will be occasional instances, for example when building new infrastructure, where it's necessary in the common interest for a home to be moved or demolished. When that happens, it must be the responsibility of the collective - the natural society, or in the last instance of the commune - to ensure that the tenant is offered a new home which is at least equally acceptable to them.

 Allocating land

Everyone needs land. Homes usually need to be sited on land. We travel mainly by roads and paths on land. We enjoy our recreation mainly on land. The forests we need both to grow timber for our buildings, and to clean carbon out of our air, grow mostly on land. Our food is mostly grown on land. And in the words of the old and now sadly ironic joke, only the Dutch are making it any more.

To have secure tenure of a home, a person needs secure tenure of the land it's built on. To build a factory, or a school, or a hospital, the people who together operate that facility need secure tenure of the land it's built on, for the expected lifetime of that facility.

If these fixed, built on, allocations of land to specific people and specific uses are relatively sparse, people can still use and enjoy the interstitial land. But at the population densities we now have in much of modern Scotland, these allocations cannot be sparse.

Beyond the built land, there must be farmed land. We need food, for people to eat. Farmed land must be managed, tended, cared for. To produce food in quantity, sustainably and to a high standard needs consistent care. Land needs consistent care by people who are intimate with it. Much forest, especially if we want quality timber for structural material, needs consistent care in exactly the same way as farmed land and should be treated in exactly the same way.

So the key here, is that for any given piece of land, there is a common interest that the same people should be caring for it for a long time, both so they know it well, and so they are not tempted to manage it in ways that leave it degraded. Whether that is a matter of allocating land to individuals or to cooperatives is a matter for the people of a locality; it is a matter for the people of the locality do determine who has the care of which piece of land. But that care should be for the long term: for an individual, for as long as they are willing and able to care for it; for a cooperative, for a long and potentially renewable fixed term, perhaps fifty years.

But no person and no group should have indefinite allocation of land, because if they do, you end up with two classes of people: those who have land and those who do not. Once all the land is allocated and all allocations have people tending them, there is no more land to allocate. This means not only should allocations to cooperatives always be time limited, but allocations to individuals must not be heritable.

And where land is not built on, there should be no exclusive use of it. The person or people to whom it is allocated care for it, and must have a reasonable expectation that other people will not heedlessly or maliciously interfere with that care. But it is everyone's land, and everyone must have access to it.

Food, Clothing, and other Necessary Items

If you have a money economy, then a good society must provide every person with a basic income sufficient to buy adequate food, clothing, and other personal items necessary to lead a dignified life.

That, of course, necessarily means that you need a taxation function to collect the money to pay all those basic incomes, and an accounting function to make sure it's all collected and distributed fairly, and you end up with a lot of work and complexity and bureaucracy which ends up benefitting no one at all. I'd rather not go there. A gift economy is just far simpler and less work. However, I do understand that most people brought up under capitalism will not trust that a gift economy is capable of supplying everyone's needs, so if you insist on a money economy, this is how it must work.

If you have a gift economy, then everyone gets their food from the people who produce food, and their clothing from the people who produce clothing; or from communal stores. And if there isn't enough food, or enough clothing, or enough soap, or enough jewellery to meet the needs of the people in the locality, well, that's an indication that someone needs to work at that!

Distribution

Socialism in one nation, as Trotsky observed, is somewhat difficult to establish and to maintain. How much more so, then, is full-on anarcho-communism, from which the state has already very largely withered away?

The simple model of the rural commune which more or less satisfies all its needs from local production doesn't work for complex modern economies. There are some things which may more efficiently be produced in one locality than in another. There may be some communes which largely produce industrial goods, but produce little food, for example.

So there needs to be coordination across wider areas to move things which are needed from where they are produced to where they are needed. Within Scotland, that too should be a matter for the gift economy - goods should be transported, freely, from where they are in surplus from where they are needed.

Not on the basis that the Isle of Harris needs a ferry and the people of Port Glasgow make ferries so the people of Harris will give the people of Port Glasgow some very large number of tweed overcoats in return for a ferry, but on the basis that the people of the Isle of Harris make tweed overcoats for people who need them, and the people of Port Glasgow make ferries for people who needs them, and that what goes around comes around, and in the organic cooperative mix everyone's needs will ultimately be satisfied.

But Scotland cannot produce all the things it needs; there are some things we need, or at least want, that our climate and our geography are not adapted to produce. Beyond the territory in which the revolution has been established - furth of Scotland, as it were - there is a need for an interface with the societies that are still operating the obsolete and antiquated money economies.

Global distribution

So there's a need to move goods both from Scotland outwards, and from the outer world into Scotland. Where there are other territories operating gift economies, then all that's needed is a voluntary agreement some group of people who have a surplus of some goods that Scotland wants, some group of people who have a means of transport, and some group of people in Scotland who want to receive, and to either directly use or to distribute those goods.

Obviously that doesn't have to be 'for money'. Even in our current, money economy, when there is great need in some part of the world furth of Scotland, the people of Scotland will send goods to their aid without expectation of payment in return.

Where there is a feeling of mutuality between people in Scotland and people in some other place, a feeling that we are all part of the same mutually sharing community, then this principle should apply even where there is not some great or pressing need.

But most of the world, at least at first, will not operate a gift economy. So there needs to be some interface through which some body, some cooperative or remnant state function takes goods which are in surplus in Scotland and in demand elsewhere, and sells those goods for money in order to buy for money goods which are in surplus in some money economy but in demand in Scotland.

How this works is a delicate matter. If the people making the goods which are being exported end up feeling that their effort is being exploited, then they'll stop making them, and, in a gift economy, there's no mechanism by which their labour can be compelled. On the other hand, if people see the common benefit of the goods which are being imported, then they may be the more willing to make goods for export.

But, obviously, there needs to be a high level of trust in the probity of the people actually doing the trading, or this system isn't going to work.

 Moving on

No one is free unless they are free to move. A good society cannot be one in which people are compelled to live their lives in the commune of their birth. The nature of being free to move is that a person moves when they choose to move, without being obliged to justify their choice to anyone.

There has, therefore, to be a strong social expectation that communes will welcome incomers, will provide temporary accommodation for people who are travelling through and permanent accommodation for people who choose to settle and make a home. The nature of a free society, of course, is that communes cannot be compelled to do this, something I'll discuss in more detail later.

Misfits and Outcasts

The community of which I am a member cast someone out last month. It's the first time we ever have cast anyone out, in eleven years. It is not something I am proud of, in the least. We cast him out because we found him too aggressive, too hostile, too disrespectful of others, too exploitative. He didn't engage with us in the mutuality which is essential to a society.

We are inevitably not innocent in this. There will have been things we did - things which I did - which provoked his hostility and disrespect. And, ultimately, I believe that the people who come to have disrespectful and hostile relationships with others usually do so because of adverse events in childhood. It isn't necessarily - it probably is not - their fault.

I'm not saying that antisocial behaviour is solely a consequence of childhood trauma, of course. Sometimes adverse events to an adult, such as post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, lead to antisocial behaviour. But I do not believe in 'evil people', or in original sin. People are born with a strong impulse to be pro-social, to be co-operative and mutually supportive. And when people behave antisocially and other members of their society respond with disapproval, most people will alter their behaviour to stay within social norms.

Some people don't. As I've said, I do not believe that people who are persistently antisocial do so out of inherent badness; I believe it's almost always a response to trauma. I don't believe that punishment is an appropriate response. But people who are persistently antisocial are very hard for a community to cope with; they can create disproportionate levels of stress and unhappiness across the whole group. Also, once someone has been identified as a troublesome person, there is a tendency to blame that person for trouble.

Furthermore, it's really hard for someone to restore their reputation within a community within which they have become, whether through their own fault or otherwise, generally disliked. It's often much better for them to move on to somewhere where they are not known, where people do not have negative expectations of them, and to start afresh there.

If, in starting afresh, they settle well into their new community, and are liked and accepted there, then that is a good outcome for everyone. But there are some people who are so locked into their destructive patterns that, having made themselves unwelcome in one community, they will go on to make themselves unwelcome in the next.

But everyone has to live somewhere; so, ultimately, whose responsibility is it to house and care for a very disruptive individual? Is it the community where they were born? Is it the community where they have ended up?

In a very decentralised, minimally structured society, this is one of the principal areas I see major stresses and conflicts arising between communities. Others will include pollution, excess use of water from watercourses, industrial processes perceived to be dangerous.

 The Withering

States don't normally wither away. People who have power and status don't normally willingly surrender it. The Marxist-Leninist programme, to create a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' in a socialist state governed by a 'vanguard party' which will create the framework of communes and then somehow magically wither away just does not work and will not work. What it ignores is that both feudalism and neoliberalism are dictatorships over the proletariat, governed by vanguard party elites. The trouble is, the interests of the vanguard party very quickly diverge from the interests of the proletariat, if they were ever aligned in the first place.

To allow a good society to emerge on a national scale requires, in my opinion, consciously unmaking the state - consciously dismantling its mechanisms, unravelling its webs, and leaving as little as possible in place from which it can be rebuilt.

So what is the bare minimum of central structure necessary to maintain an anarcho-communist society over a wide area?

There probably needs to be an overarching body - an Allþing, a national council, something of that sort - which meets either annually or when specifically invoked, whose principal role is to mediate inter-communal disputes. That body should ideally be made up of delegates from each commune, and it should select its secretariat from within its membership.

Although expertise is valuable, structures which entrench power are dangerous; the secretariat should not be permanent, and people should not serve on it for more than a few successive years.

How should the cooperatives which manage things like global distribution, or coordinate public health, for example, interact with the national body? I think that it is important that they cannot be subordinate to it: it cannot instruct them to do things, any more than it can instruct any individual commune (or individual person) to do things. But it could serve as a vector through which such broad cooperatives could communicate back to the communes, so it might make sense for the national body to invite such cooperatives also to send delegates.

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