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Underground blues

I sing of happiness in little things
a daughter who puts lipstick on my face
the smile of a stranger when she sees my hat
the dream of reading a poem to you one day
the quiet jazz music they play in my café
the traces of other minds on my computer screen
the taste of hot coffee from a paper cup
the tranquil fantasy of a world that could have been
the clock’s nostalgic design from another land
and how the minutes kiss the hour hand
the sound of conversations in a foreign tongue
my own longing for candid talk, subdued in a song
that revels forever in all of the above,
and how I wish to succumb to absent-minded love
to sing the underground blues with all my force
to eat the sweet fruit in our garden of metaphors
I hum yesterday’s sadness in tomorrow’s drunken ears
ears that stand on fearless heads, and I dream
of sweet visions, of high words in the skies
I am driving through a tunnel with the voltage in my thighs
happiness is in little things, and that is alright:
At the end of the tunnel, there is no light
but the tunnel, my friends, is electrified

Thank you for the kind birthday wishes!

peach-blossom-in-spring

To all who wished me a happy birthday on our beloved social media, and in particular to those well wishers I couldn’t reply personally: Thank you very much for all your kind words, they inspire me to celebrate my 38th birthday with 365 days of inspiration.

I am determined to keep up my writing in 2017. A lot of it will be shared here, as I garner the temerity to call these words – “Words! they said, mere words! What good are they if the world is ill? Without us, their worth is nil” – my gift to the world.

The upcoming year will be one of political turmoil and unprecedented climatic and environmental hazard, or one in which we finally ‘get it right’ organizing as a species – depending on your perspective, or filter bubble. What we need now is a healthy culture of political debate, in the face of ever more destructive and self-reinforcing events. The era of popular politicians who were able to balance and appeal to majorities (the Obamas, Merkel, and in my little country of birth, Rutte), seems to come to a close.

Anyway, in this bizarre depoliticized era of ours I have to suppress the ‘correctness’ to apologize for bringing up politics in a birthday thank you note, along with the temptation to add a smiley to this very sentence.

Let intelligent, empathetic, constructive, collaborative conversations reign supreme in 2017.

Thank you all!

Could systemic change be catalyzed by effective altruism?

Dear Prof. Peter Singer,

I would like to convey my utmost gratitude for your extraordinary efforts related to the relief of animal cruelty and poverty. I applaud the approach of programs like Give what we can because I think every dollar spent on things like malaria prevention, de-worming, girl’s education or clean drinking water as morally superior to lavish consumption.

You will certainly have heard of the (in my view only) plausible objection to the practice of philanthropy, which is that it diverts our collective attention from much needed systemic change. Apart from allegations that institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation are effective ways to minimize taxation (to which I think the notion that people in the global south need it more than the IRS, is a legitimate response) there are people who claim that philanthropy gives moral justification to the status quo of structural and radical inequality and thus contributes to the inertia and numbs any revolutionary zeal towards overthrowing a system that is geared only towards the production of infinite growth, regardless of the social and environmental cost that by definition cannot be offset by philanthropy.

To avoid misunderstanding, I have donated a modest inheritance myself to charitable causes during a journey to local charities in the global south in 2009, that I undertook after I realized that the PhD-thesis I wrote on our responsibility for future generations was mere theory. I went on to create a website, kindmankind.net, connecting the ‘least connected’. This endeavor was miles away from fancy charities with glossy websites and central Manhattan office space. It was also largely ignored because it was not an incorporated, ‘authorized’, official, trickle-down institution. It was (and is – I run it at near-zero marginal cost) just an open source platform for and by the people to enable and encourage sharing of resources, mainly knowledge. This is not to say it is morally superior to the ‘charity-industrial complex’ (it isn’t). The vision behind my project is merely more radical in that it anticipates the necessary systemic change away from the neoliberalist status quo that, I believe, reproduces the very structural inequality it provides band-aid for through well-intended philanthropy.

Of course large-scale philanthropy is infinitely better than the IMF-imposed structural adjustment or the debt bondage of entire countries and the effective appropriation of their resources by the wealthier lender countries. Philanthropy, necessary as it may be during the transition to an economic system that is compatible with our planet, should always have a clear and realistic idea about the systemic change that is needed to render itself, ultimately, unnecessary.

Thus, my question to the effective altruism community is as follows: Could necessary systemic change be catalyzed by effective altruism? Which long term vision for the world is upheld among its advocates and how do they describe the path to get there? Do effective altruists welcome ideas that principally question neoliberal dogma, such as the Commons and peer production movements?

I would welcome a discussion of these issues with people involved with the effective altruism movement, who I hold in high esteem for both the intentions and the consequences of their actions.

Bubbles

bubbles are not seasonal

During the last days of a year that was filled with the perceived horrors of the untimely death of several celebrity actors and popstars, as well as the real horror of the destruction of Aleppo, I want to sit back and reflect.

A word that illustrates our quick march towards unadulterated cynicism that characterized the year 2016 is ‘filter bubble’. In a world of ‘hypernormalisation‘, to use the phrase of Adam Curtis’ recent documentary, people see their own (political) convictions projected and reaffirmed on their screens, because that’s what the algorithms decide. The unbounded desire for such reaffirmation justifies the emerging fake-news industry. The truth, as usual assumed to be some principally attainable substantive, dies first according to the media theorists who study the phenomenon.

So, 2016 was a year in which, entirely according to taste, democratic capitalism irrevocably embarked on a journey to hell, lined by the croaking voices of Farage and Trump; it was the year in which climate change became so terrifyingly obvious (last November, the North Pole was 20 degrees hotter than it should be) that the academic question, according to Noam Chomsky whom I admittedly worship too much, becomes which hell do we reach first.

2016 was a year in which, entirely according to taste, democratic capitalism irrevocably embarked on a journey to hell, lined by the croaking voices of Farage and Trump

Basking in my very own bubble, what can I say that penetrates this bubble? Shouldn’t I restrict myself to the Socratic admonition of the impossibility of real knowledge? Even if I would have expert knowledge and understanding of what is going on in the world, how could I convince anybody that such knowledge is not ultimately dependent on my own bubble and should hence be discarded by those living outside of it?

I’m sure that you have, like me, engaged in many discussions on social media throughout 2016. I have argued about climate change, environmental degradation, the Syrian civil war, the sharing economy, the universal basic income, the European refugee crisis, Brexit, and many other things. When I decide to contribute, I try to be unsure about my own position; I rather ‘try out’ arguments, curious of where they might lead to. It could only give us more truth, if we believe in discursive progress (as we must). Anyway, I have managed to avoid wholesale identification with liberal, conservative or radical ideologies, but sadly in a culture that mistakes critical assessment for hostility, this might have precluded some lasting (online) philosophical friendships.

So, here is my wish for the new year 2017. Calmness of mind and – allow me to weave the metaphor further – the build-up of pressure to destroy filter bubbles and the theoretical frames of mind that keep inflating them. All that a philosopher can wish for on the verge of a new year is the love of wisdom and the leaden knowledge (as poor Plato found out) that we don’t have a recipe for building the right society – that all we can and should do is pop some bubbles.

As for me, I hope to buckle up, ramble on and inspire other minds to the simple joy of the oldest technology that doesn’t pollute the environment: language. I wish my readers the sustained inspiration they need for a gentle descent into the abyss that political and environmental pundits alike so dramatically promise us, or, should the pundits be wrong (they too live in their own bubble, after all) the ability to recognize and utilize the tiniest window of opportunity that humanity might have to get out of this mess.

Happy New Year!

Where's Bob?

I leave the guitar and Bob’s voice to your imagination; singin’ volunteers and suggestions welcome!

Bob, where are you Bob?
Are you staying in bed, did you catch the flu
why is it so hard to get through to you?
do you have the blues, so many writer would
love to walk in your shoes Bob, even Philip Roth
would stop and he would be learning how to siiiiiiiiiiiiiing
’cause you know, the times they are a-changin’

Bob, where are you Bob?
you’re a poet everyone knows you’re the screeching voice of your generation
that saw the blood on the tracks and where we’re going to with our civilization
and your woeful guitar sounds, painted the blues in the face of a sordid nation
we’ve been knockin’ on your door for days now, and tried to call you up on the phone
but you answer was silence, tell us Bob do you really want to be left all alone?

Bob, where are you Bob?
we need you now, you’re a legendary man, you speak the truth through your teeth
your shrieking voice’ echo lives in the ears of everyone and the world lies at your feet
you’re an all American troubadour, a man who lives for the poetry in his bone
sing us song, sing us the ballad, of a thin man, who’s tangled up in blue and all alone
write us howling verses like no other can not even tom waits and leonard cohen
there’s a crackle in everything, that’s how the light gets in and you’ve known
we are your fans bob zimmerman, tell us are you too busy being born to condone
a Nobel prize, or are you too busy dying?

Bob, where are you Bob?
Man up, mister tambourine, look back at the trinkets in your prize vitrine
do you see the Grammy and the Pulitzer catching dust it has never been
a better time Bob, now we all got visions of Johanna, and we all feel forever young
and you know how much love was made, in the mighty echo of your soooooooongs
I hate driving down highway 61 and hearing on the radio that the committee will rescind
what do you say Bob, or is your answer forever blowing in the wiiiiiiind

Bob, where are you Bob?
I see you sitting by the campfire of history, singing about war and the marginalized
you raised your broken voice, and millions of people were moved, to paradise
the world wants to hear your chuckle and see the sparkling in your eyes
when you surpassed so many bitter literates and got your Nobel priiiiiiiize

Pokemon Ghost

hyper-realistic human holograms of virtual citizens. You can only interact with them through your phone.

envy is not a sin

before you got published, you were jealous of someone who did

when you got published, you were jealous of someone who got a second print

when you got a second print, you were jealous of someone who sold 100,000 copies

when you sold 100,000 copies, you were jealous of someone who won the Booker Prize

when you won the Booker Prize, you were jealous of someone who won the Nobel Prize

when you won the Nobel Prize, you farted during your acceptance speech

we hasten not

it is high noon and the bright fruits shine
in the air is a promise of decay

we let the sun pour its old light on us
and bury imagination in warm smiles

we save up for higher seasons, for longer shadows
for deeper promises and gentler declines

slow and infinite are our thoughts, we hasten not
we are like the dream of an old animal who goes to die

that way our freedom is no longer tasteless and we
can press our cold mouths against each other to live

from the words that remain like berries on a charred plant
from the cold shades wherein we wield each other’s power

are you there, my children, ready to celebrate the story as a story
and to fall in love a hundred times

Relabeling

Since it has become part of my daily life I would like to describe once again my thoughts about copbsjobing with bullshit labor. Bullshit jobs, to me, are characterized by a complete lack of meaning. No matter how hard you try, you can’t discern a core of value in a bullshit job, and this is after you have discussed the idea that ‘meaning is subjective anyway’.

They are something else than nasty tasks you don’t like to perform, such as, say, garbage collecting. If you are employed in such a profession, you probably know it has a purpose. The world would be worse off without garbage collectors, a glance at strikes in Napoli will reassure you. The same argument could be made for miners, soldiers, factory workers to the extent that they are able to choose their profession freely.

But not for bullshit jobs. You recognize a bullshit job because the people performing it cannot believe the world is any better off with the existence of the company they are working for. It is not about the inevitable ‘boring’ work that comes with any job (such as a lecturer’s administration). There is nothing that can redeem the boring task. No cleaner world, no rescued children, no advancement of science, no more beautiful world our hearts believe in.

The bullshit job is an illness of capitalism that has become too fast for our culture. It is an occupation that generates profit by leveraging old inefficiencies and habits. The world would be better off when the entire realm, everything they stand for, would disappear overnight.

And still, I do it. I am a bullshit job survivor.

Performing a bullshit job is a mind numbing experience. I cope by relabeling a job session as a music session and listen to music while I type away (bullshit jobs, as a rule, require very little creativity and concentration). Listening to a Mozart sonata while typing away on my keyboard (I believe these keystrokes add up to translations and websites and marketing copy) can actually become a somewhat fulfilling experience. If I’m in the mood, I can identify with the virtuoso at the real keyboard. I am Brendel or Barenboim, while the bullshit job ‘generates’ (that is the core illusion) about one dollar per minute.

It is still devoid of any meaning, but it might be as good as it gets.

In defence of the basic income

There are some very good arguments for the basic income, eloquently summed up in numerous articles such as this piece in the Guardian. Personally, I feel good about the idea of a basic income. After a decade of open-source writing, I wouldn’t want to change my habit. Whatever is really meaningful, we share diligently, enthusiastically and at zero marginal cost. Asking a monetary reward for it is a conflict of my own interests. So nothing comes more natural than the humble dream: If only my basic needs (and more importantly: the basic needs of my family) were taken care of, I could pursue my proper interest – the pursuit of our own interests is the only way we can contribute to a society with a steadily increasing automation, where uninteresting things are done by robots anyway.

Basic income culture is secular religion.

I would feel fundamentally thankful. I claim that a majority of people share this feeling. Society explicitly tells them they are an end in themselves, because they are awarded an income that doesn’t depend on their contribution. Thou shalt eat, whether or not you work. I would go even further: People will break the bread they buy from their unconditional income together. The unconditionality will occupy a space that has been vacant since the erosion of the Church. The old God loved all of his children unconditionally and the new “God” will, too. The unconditionality is fundamental. The fetish of justice that has become so apparent in the current welfare state, is replaced by a primordial trust, which means: blind trust. The priest who pretends to mediate between you and your God is replaced by the community (not necessarily the state) that has already acknowledged your value, unconditionally.

The history of religion proves that people are deeply touched by this. People begin to feel they belong when they have been declared to belong. They will develop a gratitude and a profound passion to improve the community that has unconditionally labelled them valuable. Basic income culture is secular religion.

The difference with state communism is of course that it is fundamentally democratic. State planned enterprises staffed by a bored proletariat that has succumbed to the propaganda machine are replaced with co-ops where all owners have a stake and jointly enjoy the fruit of their labor. They are intrinsically motivated and invested in their enterprise, and that is precisely the reason why they won’t automate away their jobs.

Experiments, please

Of course, such theoretical ideas will need to be tested as rigorously as possible. And fortunately, this is happening in the former bastions of social democratic glory, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands among other places. I think this experimental approach is very important, because it could temporarily silence the ideological dichotomy that roars in the underbelly of our debate.

I like to see more basic income-experiments that are not borne out of the desire to vindicate a specific proposed model, but out of a genuine scientific interest. This implies that we should try out more parameters. For example: the UBI is a wonderful chance for direct democracy. Rather than pundits and apparatchiks, why not let the beneficiaries themselves set the amount of the basic income? Why should the amount be fixed and the same for everyone? Why should it be paid monthly? Or even, why should the UBI be individualistic? Why not try out a UBI that is awarded to a small group of people who share it? Or, why be dogmatic about unconditionality? Why not try to limit it to people with modest consumption patterns (e.g. buying a fuel-guzzling car puts you on a red list)? Why not experiment with a foodstamp-like system, a basic income that can be spent only on certain basic goods and services?

We can learn a lot from such experiments. However, we need more than the testimony of a basic Incomer who has victoriously concluded twelve months of meaningful occupation and brought significant happiness to his own community. We need more because the basic income implies a radical shift of power that is overlooked in the technocratic approach, and power is of course never relinquished and handed over voluntarily.

Fundamental power shift

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) shifts the power to the post-workers. The proletariat is no longer dependent on the factory to survive. They now have bargaining power. In Marxist terms: The labor market becomes more like a potato market. When workers are structurally scarce, businesses will need to either optimize working conditions or make labor redundant. This makes workplace automation (robots, AI) even more competitive, which further increases the need for a basic income.

Will people stop doing the nasty work? Authors like Jeremy Rifkin and Paul Mason counter this by pointing at the advent of automation which has made the nasty work a lot less nasty than a few decades ago (think of modern garbage trucks) and made a lot of the nasty work simply disappear (think of automated production lines). So what about the remaining nasty jobs, the jobs that are mind-numbing yet not (economically) automated? Here looms the revolutionary potential of the UBI. While automation has slashed a lot of nasty work, the UBI will give workers negotiating power. So there will be very few nasty jobs left that can’t be profitably automated. And that is precisely the point: The UBI catalyzes the third industrial revolution and the transformational shift to post-capitalism. In other words: The culture around the UBI would manifest an unprecedented rebalancing of power, that today, in our networked society, we have a chance to achieve without a bloody revolution.

Henry Ford’s insight, that he had to make sure his workers can buy the very cars they produce, becomes obsolete. Wages cease to be the main lever that controls consumer spending. Workers who have “seized the means of a basic livelihood” can and will demand meaningful work and co-ownership. I think the radical nature of this shift is often overlooked in the debate about the basis income. Unions won’t negotiate the level of worker exploitation, but the level of worker ownership. It is as Jeremy Rifkin says: capitalism will become a fringe game serving niche markets.

But there is another aspect that heralds the end of capitalism.

Footing the bill

The Thatcherite quote that “ultimately, you run out of other people’s money” is a vulgarity. Still, apart from ill-perceived theories about human nature, the presumably exorbitant cost of the UBI is one of the main arguments against it.

the UBI guarantees a basic level of aggregate demand that companies can build and be built on.

Calculations typically show that the basic income is only slightly more expensive than the current welfare system in Western European countries. The extra money should come of course from more taxes, and these taxes are mainly anti-capitalist.Götz Werner, founder of the German drugstore chain DM, proposes a dramatic increase in value added tax. This would lead of course to a decrease in consumption, something opponents of endless economic growth would applaud. I don’t think the economy would spiral into a recession because the UBI guarantees a basic level of aggregate demand that companies can build and be built on. Rather than sliding into misery or ‘stagflation’, the economy would reset itself at a more sustainable level.

Other taxes, such as the financial transaction ‘Tobin’-tax (attac) or direct wealth tax (Piketty) also shift the power to control the economy away from capital towards the community.

Of course society can pay for a basic income. The question is, are we ready for its post-capitalist implications?

The psychology of the basic income

The post-capitalist notion of putting power in the hands of the community (the post-workers) raises issues about fairness because communities consist of individuals, some of whom appear not to be ‘deserving’. I assume that people who have a successful traditional career will feel different about a basic income than those who couldn’t get a job. Why should everybody have the right to be, at a basic level, secure when they worked all their lives to keep insecurity at bay? This lies at the heart of our social instinct. Homo sapiens, having evolved as a small social primate, has a very vivid imagination of the figure of the ‘free rider’, a vermin he needs to keep his community clear of by all means.

Culture puts us in a state of elevated desperation.

Beyond our fairness instinct, there is another mental habit that causes a hostile attitude towards the basic income. The patronizing argument from psychology is that we need our worries. They make life meaningful. It should be a human right not to be too much secured. Our actions should be guaranteed to be meaningful to ourselves because we are dependent on them in order to survive. Life is not only about taking risks, but about being thrown into them in a Heideggerian fashion. If society deprives us of our existential worries or mocks them by feeding everybody unconditionally, wouldn’t we fall into apathy and utter meaninglessness? There is nothing so inhumane, in this line of thought, as a free lunch.

But isn’t culture about elevating the level of this existential worry, to less cruel, short and brutish, yet still subjectively precarious predicaments? Our ancestors improved their lot from the worry of being eaten alive by wild animals to the worry of not harvesting enough grain to survive the winter. In today’s societies, people worry about not having enough money, which implies homelessness, chronic hunger and social degradation. Why keep people in unnecessary worries about their basic needs? Their worry is existential and it can consume people. A higher culture, I claim, maintains the sense of urgency (the way the worries create meaning) but overcomes the unnecessary physical violence. It is able to ‘gamify’ the existential. Seeing your team lose a soccer match can cause real distress, but it doesn’t debilitate you, or permanently influence your capacity to contribute to your community. Culture puts us in a state of elevated desperation that allows people – especially the more fearful characters among us – to thrive as soon as their they don’t need to worry about their meager welfare.

Inequality

Such considerations, however, leave the issue of structural inequality untouched. Does the UBI preserve, or exacerbate inequality? It seems that, because everybody receives it, money that could have gone to the needy ends up in the pockets of the wealthy, while the basic income will not be sufficient for certain groups, such as the physically disabled. They will need additional support, necessitating in part the very bureaucracy that the UBI was designed to overcome. I think this is based on a misunderstanding of the idea. It cannot replace other systems that support the disabled. The UBI is a no-nonsense social safety net. The fact that most models propose an equal amount for everyone has a pragmatic reason: it does away with case-by-case review and captures most people’s intuition of fairness.

A French blog made another critical point. The UBI rewards people because of their nationality. A European country can not possibly promise a basic income to all its residents, because foreigners would move there just to enjoy the UBI. But if only French nationals receive a ‘revenu de base’ it will create a new lower class of foreign residents. This would reintroduce the very class difference the UBI was supposed to overcome. This is indeed a conundrum, but again it depends on the implementation. There are no easy answers here. A EU-wide basic income is probably a bridge too far, even for Yannis Varoufakis. Introducing a certain degree of conditionality (speaking a language, being integrated) seems to defeat the purpose of making our bureaucracies leaner.

Peer to peer commons management in the spirit of stewardship rather than extractivism, will flourish in a basic income world.

I think we can respond like this. The perverse and structural wealth and income inequality in our society cannot be reversed with the standard economic toolbox of stimulus and austerity or within the mainstream political spectrum. The basic income in itself will not change that. But the UBI is part of a bigger package.

When the poor have a guaranteed livelihood, they could form co-operatives. Worker-owned enterprises will thrive. How do they attract investors? Crowdfunding. With their income secured, people will be a lot more willing to take risks, and to invest in projects or co-ops they believe in. I think that this fundamental restructuring towards a more lateral power structure is what Michel Bauwens also envisions. Peer to peer commons management through ‘phyles’, in the spirit of stewardship rather than ‘extractivism’, will flourish in a basic income world. It is insightful to recall that the software commons are already managed this way, by volunteers (Linux, Apache, Mozilla) who typically don’t have to worry about food on the table because of their six-figure tech salaries.

This spirit would spread to other domains. Currently, it is financially risky to give up your bullshitjob and become, say, an organic farmer. How would it pay the rent, is the first question. Very few such businesses survive their first year, which makes it in turn hard to get a bank loan, although local organic agriculture is not capital intensive. Managing our collective Commons will make a lot of sense to a lot of people. The UBI will take away a lot of fear, and could make our existential worries more productive.

The basic income as a commons

I like to understand the universal basic income as a commons. We can understand its cultural implications when we take other commons as a metaphor. Consider for example another commons (or as the neoliberals would say: unsolicited government service): physical infrastructure such as sidewalks. People don’t think twice before using them. Without them, survival in a big city would be a lot harder and people would be a lot less efficient. Of course, it is intuitively clear to everyone that it is virtually impossible to charge a usage fee for sidewalks. Imagine turnstiles on every street corner, and check-out sweeps when you take a taxi or enter a building. The bureaucratic overhead to deal with fees and fines would be a lot bigger than the cost of maintaining the sidewalks (granted, they are in notoriously bad shape in many US cities).

If you don’t voluntarily replenish the commons, you are a silly, unrealistic loser.

Furthermore, treating the UBI as a commons will have implications on the idea of commons management. The juxtaposition of the commons and private property, as if they serve opposed purposes, becomes obsolete (Elinor Ostrom). Traditional commons (air, water, land, airwaves) are indispensable, but they don’t provide everything. Narratives about the ‘tragedy of the commons’, essentially proto-propaganda for the concentration of power in a few hands, have become an integral part of the economic culture. People who voluntarily replenish the commons were described as silly, unrealistic losers. With the basic income as a commons, the narrative is replaced. If you don’t voluntarily replenish the commons, you are a silly, unrealistic loser (with very few likes on Facebook).

Pedestrians don’t need to think about it so they can focus on where they’re going to. The sidewalk is part of the marketplace. It enables economic interactions because it gives buyer and seller access to stores. You pay for the sidewalk when you buy something in the store, through taxes. But it’s absurd to think you’re not entitled to use the sidewalk unless you buy something.

The basic income would be like a sidewalk. It gives people access to the post-capitalist ‘marketplace’, the place of social interaction we use to call shops. People can navigate the ‘sidewalk of being’ without fear of hunger and homelessness, and meet each other on an equal footing. If there is an opportunity for the production of value, they will jump at it (what else does value mean?). The UBI only makes sure that nothing holds them back. For those with a neoliberal taste, it gives all people access to the marketplace of ideas. For communitarian thinkers, it allows people to be not only in pursuit of happiness, but actually happy. And happy people are value, not just creators of value.

Basic Income Network

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