Note: This is an excerpt from Feasta member Patrick Noble’s newest book. In the past we have published excerpts from two of his previous books: A Potent Nostalgia and The Commons of Soil. You can read more about Patrick’s work on his website.
Once upon a time in the next few years or so, in a land called Nowhere, there was a great upheaval. How it happened remains unclear, but I compare it to seasonal migrations of flocks and herds, in which every member knew by nature what was to be done. There was no great flood, nor violent revolution.
But there was an evacuation of sorts accompanied by an occupation of sorts. It was not illegal to modern law, and yet it was one of the great folk movements of history. A contagious impulse to take part infected metabolisms of cities and nerves of social systems. A virus you say? I say it was a kind of eusocial immune system returning perversity to normal.
You reasonably point out that there was no great upheaval and that people remained in comfortable dependency on careless, self-serving (and perverse) power. Well, your reason must similarly point out that great floods, wilding weather, followed by economic collapse were a reasonable, utterly natural consequence and that comfortable dependency ended in chaos. Chaos has no narrator and so I’ll leave her ingredients as by the by. Here’re a few – they include starvation, mass migration, war……
So, I say – Once upon a time, there came to pass, the last consumer choice.
The choice to walk to the exit of those large retail chains and to join the exodus of retail parks and super markets came to most people, less with a passionate cry, and more with a sigh of relief. It was less the great revolt and more the return of ordinary lives. Don’t forget that the ways we live now are extra-ordinary. They’ve never been before and can never be again.
Many who wished to abandon their dependency could not at first. Wages to feed and house their children held priority over individual moral choice. Perhaps there were no other means to shop but in a super market and sometimes for a farmer (for instance) there were no other markets for her produce. But humanity is well adjusted to deal with paradox and that we cannot do what we’d like to do does not mean we’ve made a compromised choice. You see – night time tales remain in the heart. If I have no choice, then my intrinsic moral remains untouched. Milton’s sophistry was true in those cases: They also serve, who only stand and wait.
My aside to those NGOs whose object is to change the amoral and even physically impossible from within, is that they must abandon intrinsic ethics, so that both independent reason and moral compass are lost. Amorality will only converse on amoral terms. NGOs have often chosen to do wrong things – quite different from those restrained from doing right. It’s an ancient dilemma – one most frequently created by occupying armies, or by gangsters who’ve control of streets in which good citizens live. None but the priest would have licence to change the Mafiosi from within, but the good citizen with a care for her family may be forced to prudently pay the protection moneys – or as we’ll explore: the Druidgeld.
The way through a mire is through it to the other side and the fact that we must compromise with the inhabitants of the mire, does not mean we should attempt to improve their management by participation – We wish to escape it altogether and to walk prudently and safely to the other side.
So the folk movement began to swell like water into a landscape, finding its courses of least resistance. The fashion for participation was empathetic and spread by way of the easily-receptive heart – so that even those who were prudently chained to contrary jobs and ways of life, were able to look on with a constrained and secret pleasure. – The heart beats invisibly.
Modern cultures can begin as microcosms – just one to buy, another to sell and both happy with the contract. The knowledge that a two degree rise in temperature may cause a metre rise in sea level in just a few decades increased the happiness of the contract. The life previously lived seemed ridiculous. The simple relief of an ordinary life following ordinary and natural physics was like a great, common sigh which relieved the tensions of a long social anxiety.
A return to normal doesn’t sound much like an epic chapter of history, and yet it was so – just because it was unprecedented. The powerful remained in power and yet their power was slowly drained. Nations of farmers, trades-people and shopkeepers emerged like fungi from the micro- fauna or mycelia of a common heart. Suddenly town councils and even county councils became more like councils for the guilds of the trades during what was an epic transformation from dependency on the enclosures of coal, oil and gas to a true and ancient dependency on the commons of nature (and human nature).
Even NGOs which had been lurking in the shadows of power saw the futility of their various positions and either evaporated into the atmosphere of the times, or refocused their ends to join in.
For instance, the Soil Association symbol (or cockle shell) vanished from centralised distribution chains of the big brands and super markets. It re-appeared over shop doorways and workshops. Those that sought it in retail parks had to retrace their steps to find it in proper shops and increasingly-busy market squares. So instead of pulling in contrary directions, labels such as fair trade and organic became part of a populist swell which had long been advocated by the transition town movement.
One by one, people came to understand not only their dependency on physical laws, but also on each other. Those who were still locked into a pay packet from “the powers” could nevertheless contribute to something better for the future. Community owned pubs, wind turbines, village and corner shops, which have appeared in brave isolation today, became commonplace. Share or bond systems began to finance workshops, mills, boat-yards, sail trading, fishing vessels, harbours, market halls and so on. Some parish and town councils came to understand where their foundations lay – not in instruction and guidance from “above”, but in the management of both the common good and the commons of parishes and towns. The perverse post-modern idea of councils apparently “owning” land, such as roads and market squares became discredited as the idea of commons returned. Of course, ideas which are accepted citizen by citizen – even if only to join the fashion – are more durable and satisfactory than those gained from television programmes, schools or universities. Learning and education are not at all the same things.
A common is accepted from previous generations and passed on to the next. A commons right is the right to be responsible for the management and maintenance of the common. Such a definition came to define the behaviour of town and parish councils. Don’t forget that a common is ownership in common. Sometimes, commoners, having communally agreed to enclosure have then shared out a common into equal properties, but for the most part, enclosures have been by violent theft from the community.
All of these things are ordinary and easily understood. The esoteric enclosure of education by the powers evaporated as the common good of common knowledge emerged in the forms of apprenticeships on the one hand and study for its own sake on the other. Amateur study (by those who love) spread, as exited curiosity about the workings of the world similarly spread.
What about wealth and its distribution? Of course post modernity had not measured its assets, but only the spending of them – well, GDP shrank by about seventy percent, but since most of that spending had been in ephemeral things, the thirty remaining percent did not indicate austerity. Rather it indicated the loss of oil-ephemera and the gain of lives lived by ordinary laws of physics. Recently, at the Labour Party Conference a spokesperson suggested that sixty thousand pounds a year was not riches and that a labour government would support those on such a mediocre wage. When you realise that nobody could earn such amounts without both diminishing the common good and also removing it from another’s pocket, then you might also realise the common and expanding joy of escaping such a despicable system. Of course throughout history, decency has been half- inched by indecent opportunity, but in no period of history has extreme inequality been endorsed by an apparently egalitarian politic. As we know today, social mobility is proposed as “a good” and yet such mobility pre-supposes the hierarchies (the inequality) through which it would move.
Escaping the despicable politic was a part of the joy – yes joy, which was propelling people from its tainted bread and circuses towards a deeply-felt, yet easily-understood good life. The simple truths of both physics and morals were accepted as a relief from what came to be seen as the physically and morally ridiculous, druidic cult-doctrines of economic growth and intellectual progress.
It is probably no coincidence that the balances we seek in nature, replicate the inner balances by which we track our social behaviours. Anyway, moral weights and measures became replicated in natural weights and measures. Naturally, as always, dishonesty followed to take advantage of honesty, but the two entwined in a renewed social understanding – rather as spivs in the war effort of Nineteen Fourty. Worth and value are deeply and anciently-understood.
Such inner balances are not learned. We simply know them. Similarly ideas of the commons are within us. That we have what we need without instruction gave the Great Revolt its foundation stone. When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? That governments and corporations had pillaged their assets without a thought for future governments and corporations, gave the revolt its purpose (or purposes). Parents thought for their children. Today we give children to service providers who have been schooled to know better – to know that ideas can replace resources; that ingenuity will re-fill those empty holes in the ground; that wealth can expand by buying and selling ideas; that each child has a social mobility to outsoar her parents and to achieve the social status of a television personality such as “Professor” Brian Cox. Well, I must tell you that Brian saw his idle ignorance and became a bodger in a Sussex wood, with an income of four thousand pounds a year.
Four thousand pounds a year became the spirit level around which communities evolved. Here, as the bottle passes round and another log is thrown on the fire, I should really provide two possibilities for my story. However I shall choose one – not because it is more likely to become true, but because it must become true if our children are to have any life at all. Wish-full thinking has sometimes achieved its wishes. I can’t deny that sometimes it has not. I am speaking of the behaviour of those in power – not the corporations and big brands, but politicians in the parliaments of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England and Europe as a whole. The corporations proved incapable of change, but since they only ever existed by courtesy of the purses of little people, they also proved to be more ephemeral than we dare to dream today.
After Scotland gained independence from the United Kingdom, her radical land and tax reforms, coupled with a new Nordic and Baltic trading alliance evoked an excitement which soon spread to the people of Wales – who voted for their own independence soon afterwards. England became so by default. The spread of the folk movement in Scotland had provided the vote to remove the original nationalist leaders from office – an office from which they’d boasted that Scottish oil-wealth and proud history would make her a major power in Europe. Anyway, it was the new parliament, which gave her a major role in history. The Declaration of Sequestration not only left oil reserves where they lay for more judicious generations but also placed economies into the hands of citizens, while removing them from the amorality of power. The Declaration simultaneously placed economies into the ecologies in which they settled – from where else could the wealth of nations be renewed? became a populist saying. The word sequestration regained a proper meaning. Today of course, it is used to defer the disrupted, natural sequestration of coal, oil and gas by the suggestion that we can sequester a substituted biomass. Today, sequestration is the great excuse used by pastoralists for their grasslands, woodsmen for their woodland floors and “organic” farmers for their green manures and composts. It is even used by house-builders for their “embedded structures”. Grasslands, woodlands, arable and horticultural lands and our dwelling places simply exist to be managed properly. Their proper management can be no dispensation for the profligate burning for fuel of millions of sedimentary years of fossilised proteins.
Such simple truths gave volition to the Great Revolt as a kind of contagious gossip in which the ridiculous dispensations and cults of today’s post-modernity entered folk law. Comedies and songs hung naturally on images such as our familiar post modernist, who jets the globe, supports her retail park and yet earnestly applies for druidic dispensation for the carbon – quite naturally “sequestered” in her fields – not even bad behaviour compensated by good behaviour, but bad behaviour compensated by an oblivious natural world.
So Scotland led the way, which one by one – firstly Wales and then nations in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe followed. Tax reform, land reform and monetary reform were used alongside the excitedly-stimulated desires of the folk movement to bring spending down to the levels of the now severely-reduced energy-supply.
A basic, or citizen’s income, or dividend for all adult citizens, which was cheap and simple to administer, replaced both social security and pension systems.
My back of an envelope calculation of 2011 UK statistics shows that all adults of nineteen years of age could today receive a basic income of £5345. – Pension spending £144 billion, Social security £133 billion, population of over nineteen-year-olds 48.08 million. Of course the massively- cumbersome and extremely expensive administrative systems of today could be removed at a stroke, since every citizen would simply receive their five thousand pounds every year after reaching adulthood.
It is an ancient truth (which most of us brush aside) that wealth created by labour leads to lower wages, inflated property prices and increasing rents. As cultures grow more complex, the propertied become richer, while those that generate their capital in food, clothing, housing and travel become poorer. As economic activity expands, so land value inflates, rents rise and more money commands more service from those who struggle to pay high rents from mere labour value – Property and rental prices grow in the casino without restraint, while labour is restrained by both laws of physics and the limits in both time and space that its mortal frame can bear. Most property has been inherited or bought from an original and almost certainly violent enclosure of the common realm.
So, to return to my story, a site-value tax or land rental was paid back to the community from which it had been originally removed. It restored wealth to what generated that wealth – that is labour. Restoration as a citizen’s income, or citizen’s dividend was thought to be the most just method, because it was the most universal and least-easily manipulated by powerful interests.
Site value for tax purposes was based on rental value and as the economy slowed so both property and rental values fell. For instance, the value of agricultural land began to fall towards a level that more reflected its production value, so that the site value tax could more easily find its proper level. Bear in mind, as Henry George has pointed out, that a derelict farm on soil of equivalent fertility would pay the same site tax per acre as a productive farm of orchards and intensive horticultural fields – with perhaps good buildings comprising of fruit presses, corn mills, dairies and so on. Transferring income tax to land tax encouraged economic activity, expanded the real economy and shrank the casino – so progressively narrowing the gap between the rich who took from economic activity and the poor, who generated it. The convivial and ingenious language of tools became louder than the defensive and parochial language of state.
Anyway, income tax was replaced by land value tax.
Considering agriculture, intensive, mostly manual horticulture gained a tax advantage over more extensive farming systems. That advantage passed into the larger economy, since the need to transfer from oil to man power, while maintaining high crop yields was partly answered in the tax incentive.
Once it was fully understood, restoration to the common realm of the wealth extracted from it by idle property became a populist measure. Taxation was progressively removed from labour, which generated prosperity and re-applied to property which has, since the violent reformation of the sixteenth century, progressively appropriated it. (There were earlier enclosures) In consequence, ingenuity, dexterity and the greatest freedom of all – the freedom to be responsible were all liberated from the power of the casino by the maintenance of the common good as the first principle of taxation.
The propertied have traditionally argued that the trickle down from their ever-inflating wealth had stimulated services and so employment. But trickle-down from the few to the services of the many is no recipe for a just wage bargain. What’s more, demand for whimsical service is no answer to the real needs of economic settlement. It has no sense of either the scarcity of resources, or of the health of the ecology, which is the primary driving force of all economies. Nor does it, in any way, consider the common good.
Back to my story – The collapse of property prices was inevitable without an underpinning of fossil fuels and occurred rapidly after the Declaration of Sequestration. Nationalisation of personal banking became necessary as the panic generated by the sudden diminishing of property assets became firstly apparent as disaster and secondly as opportunity. A judicious use of inflation by the new Central Bank of Scotland slowed the descent to one which could be absorbed in the social imagination. So radical had the introduction of a basic income for all adult citizens seemed that other radical changes gained a step-by-step acceptance. Bear in mind that these measures were already established parts of conversation within what became an international folk movement.
The people of Ireland, who had, in many ways, begun the journey while in the darkest days of corporate power, looked on cautiously – a caution born of “Celtic Tiger” days. Ireland, more than any “nations” in the UK, had retained a folk history of struggles and a folk music and literature embedded in her social heart. A quirk of fate (and popular singing) brought Mary Robinson reluctantly back from the independent voice of her campaigning, to the compromised voice of the presidency. But her government endorsed the Scots Declaration and introduced the basic income to Ireland.
Basic Income was the catalyst for the Great Revolt to become the Great Re-Settlement – of people into new roles and of societies into their terrains. The security of that basic floor liberated an exited exploration of new skills and ingenuities – for some a simple life of study became possible without starving in the garret – scholars, poets, musicians, painters and scientists could pursue peculiar interests, while many were apprenticed to a variety of newly-appropriate trades. Still more skills were developed in garden sheds. Motherhood and parenthood lost the heart-wrenching dilemmas which they face today and schooling became a far less expensive and time and life-wasting “necessity”. Communal schooling seldom began before the age of seven and usually ended at fourteen. Those who’d sought advanced studies with authorities in their fields could travel to centres of learning, proudly bearing a newly-acquired basic income (or citizen’s dividend) with them.
So the expenses of the state for social security administration were largely removed, while education costs were dramatically reduced. Bear in mind, that as national spending (NS), which we call GDP was compelled to shrink by two thirds – by the descent from fossil fuels, so wages could similarly shrink. A state employed teacher for instance, would receive something like Four Thousand pounds a year to supplement her basic income.
While GDP shrank by two thirds, property values shrank to a tenth of today’s values. Why was there not a crash? Judiciously-used inflation regulated the descent to a degree, but the greatest regulator was the common, social imagination of citizens. Casino economies crash when punters no longer trust the punts. Facts and figures have nothing to do with economic crashes – loss of belief does.
Of course the ridiculous post-modern proposition that a measure of spending can equate to a measure of prosperity was made even more ridiculous by events. For instance, riots, floods, storms and crop-losses all lead to an expanded money-flow – to increased spending and very “healthy” GDP figures. Meanwhile, as that fantastical money-flow ascends into the stratosphere of the casino both valuable and common assets shrink, businesses fold, imports increase and exports diminish.
So! – GDP became what it is – National Spending – NS, a measure of spending. A more proper national accounting must measure what any business account must measure – that is assets at year’s end minus assets at year’s beginning.
As an aside I must mention that my wage and basic income figures are values equivalent to today for ease of understanding – Actually they were increased by inflation. State moneys for re-distribution were at-first raised from site-value taxation and a selective value added tax. Of course site values fell as bricks and mortar property values became more apparent. Income tax provided a variable contribution in the transition – Most who earned between four and six thousand pounds above their basic income provided a tithe – a word which still bore a moral implication. Income of above fifteen thousand pounds was impossible for one citizen’s labour and so all income above that level was returned to the common good at ninety percent. As the great resettlement progressed, it was planned that a site value tax to fund the citizen’s income, or dividend would replace all income taxation.
In short, basic income provided a new deal for all citizens. Since civilisations are made up of what citizens do it proved a very good deal indeed. New deals in the Roosevelt manner were sometimes applied to renewable energy schemes, branch line railways and canals, harbour construction, market halls and the destruction and recycling of retail parks, air ports and so on. These are why a transitionary income tax was initially necessary (considerably bolstered by a financial transaction tax). But the most critical new deal was for housing (for a ten-fold increase in rural populations). Simple timber-framed house-building provided that initial spur to a rural employment which then branched in more self-determined directions – principally into woodlands, horticulture and small- scale farming, which became the foundations for food trades, service trades and of course, for trade itself.
Featured image: The human immune system at work; a white blood cell (neutrophil) engulfing anthrax bacteria. Author: Volker Brinkmann. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Neutrophil_with_anthrax_copy.jpg
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One Reply to “Notes from Nowhere: Fit the First”
I recently saw a documentary about the founding of the French social security system which made me appreciate utopian thinking. The people involved were all members of the French resistance who were in hiding, in France and abroad, during the second world war. They were under extreme stress and had great difficulty in communicating among themselves. Nonetheless they succeeded in drawing up detailed plans and managed to get the system up and running very quickly after the war ended.
Some of them are still alive and were interviewed during the film. The gist of their argument was that it’s vital to give space to utopian thinking – if you limit yourself to realism it’s far harder to achieve anything meaningful. Rather than simple day-to-day survival, their focus was on the kind of world they wanted to live in after the war was over.
So, thanks for the fantasy. (I particularly appreciated the discussion of education which deserves far more attention generally.)
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