The role of capital in Syntheist communities

“The problem is that human creativity is lured into pouring all its energy into maintaining the system; this even applies to the theorists who are critical of the system. Only by stepping off, taking a position on the side-lines and constructing a world in parallel outside the system can the syntheist utopia be realised. A revolution always starts with a subtraction. We must retire to the position where, at long last, we can see the social entirety and then only act on the basis of this entirety, rather than devote ourselves to patching up a fundamentally defective system.”
Bard, Alexander; Söderqvist, Jan (2014-10-06). Syntheism – Creating God in the Internet Age (Kindle Locations 6260-6264). Stockholm Text. Kindle Edition.

Religions arise, at least in part, due to disparate wealth between social classes. Consider this quote from anthropologist David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years:

“Where physical escape is not possible, what, exactly, is an oppressed peasant supposed to do? Sit and contemplate her misery? At the very least, otherworldly religions provided glimpses of radical alternatives. Often they allowed people to create other worlds within this one, liberated spaces of one sort or another. It is surely significant that the only people who succeeded in abolishing slavery in the ancient world were religious sects, such as the Essenes – who did so effectively by defecting from the larger social order and forming their own utopian communities. Or, in a smaller but more enduring example: the democratic states of northern India were all eventually stamped out by the great empires … but the Buddha admired the democratic organization of their public assemblies and adopted it as the model for his followers.”

Monetary practices are a core element of all the West’s major religions. Examples include the Debt Jubilee in Judaism, the pooling and sharing of possessions in the early Christian church, or Islam’s prohibitions on loaning at interest (also in the Bible). These limits were a check on excessive accumulation of wealth at the expense of others.

Many of the goals for Syntheistic monetary practices are little changed. Ensure every dividual can meet basic human needs. Prohibit practices that lead to debt slavery. Limit actions that lead to long-term general pain (environmental damage, permanent underclasses) for short-term dividual gain.

Attentionalism (see The Netocrats) teaches us that the netocrat/consumtariat class division is an inevitable outcome. Nonetheless, it would be preferable to limit the impact of this split to attention and experiences. As access to God under feudalism was democratized during capitalism, we wish to democratize access to capital under attentionalism.

Syntheist monetary practices must start with an understanding of value. Consider how value is shifted between members of a society. Graeber calls out three main channels:

Exchange

This is the classic buying and selling in the marketplace with which we are familiar. It also includes loans, leases, and anything else where we quantify how much must be given by each party for a given transaction.

Communism

 “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. While few people think of themselves as communists today, this channel of exchange is common, often without thinking. Strangers answer questions about the time, the weather, or when the next train will arrive. We borrow a stick of gum, a light, or a pen. Family and friends cover restaurant bills, watch children or pets, and loan tools.

None of these involve cash or a debit card. Note how we often use exchange words like “borrow” and “loan” even when we are not keeping a ledger – exchange language is pervasive! The amount of exchange heavily depends on familiarity and trust. While we don’t quantify these precisely, we do notice imbalance. Someone always borrowing a cigarette eventually will find their circle of friends shrinking!

Hierarchy

Taxation, tithes, and slavery are all examples where value flows because of power differences. Those in power can compel those of a lower status to fund wars, build cathedrals, and work to exhaustion – or else.

The choice of channel is driven by many factors. These four appear to be primary:

Closeness of Relations

Smaller groups can function very well with little exchange or hierarchy. As group size increases, the need for interaction between unfamiliar agents increases. While this is not an issue for a stick of gum, few people will leave their children with someone they have not vetted. Hence the tendency for exchange as an arbiter between relative strangers.

Abundance / Scarcity

Economics arose primarily driven by the problem of how to allocate scarce resources. As scarcity increases, the more incentive there is to hoard a resource and only release it for maximum compensation. This can also apply if something is abundant now, yet may become scarce in the future.

Cost of “Guard Labor”

Negotiating, contracting, documentation, securing, and auditing scarce resources increase the costs of exchange and hierarchy.  Interestingly enough, economist Samuel Bowles estimates that over a fifth of the U.S. is employed in guard labor. This is driven by the heavy focus on exchange and hierarchy in early-2000s economic systems.

Agent Relativity

Class differences tend to lead to exchange, which is often a gateway to hierarchy. Kings can demand one-time tributes, which then turn into ongoing taxes. The rich are not inclined to let the poor take “whatever they need”, yet helping someone who is in the same country club is a different matter.

Given these considerations, what should be done? One recommendation for Syntheists is to discourage the use of money between members. Events like Burning Man show that it is possible for larger communities to function for short periods without money. This results in closer relationships and lower waste. It also reduces the power of wealth and hierarchy within the community.

Another idea is to explore the use of decentralized currencies such as Bitcoin. These currencies enable transactions between agents anywhere in the world with extremely low transaction fees. There is also a tremendous amount of innovation in this space worth watching.

On a related note, Syntheist communities can also experiment with locally-issued currencies. Bernard Lietaer, author of The Future of Money, notes that currencies based on crop harvests and other perishable items were common during the High Middle Ages, with tremendous benefits to local community members. Even today, concepts such as Time Dollars (global), Ithaca Hours (NY/USA), and Fureai Kippu (Japan) show that local currencies can provide a way for communities to share resources more effectively than with national currencies.

It may be possible to combine several of these ideas to provide a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) for Syntheists. A GBI is a distribution of resources without limits on how they are used. The idea is that dividuals can meet their basic needs without having to sell their time or hoard resources. The effect on poverty is obvious. The concern is that many would not work if they did not have to. However, many rich people continue to work for other reasons. Most people want to do more than just sit around all day and would actually do what they love instead of what is required to make a living.

For example, a Syntheistic community could create its own decentralized currency. Each agent would receive a fixed amount of currency for common resources owned by the community – businesses, software, stocks, bonds, etc. As the value of the common resources went up or as resources are added, new shares would be created to maintain the value of a share. The new shares would be given to new agents through some mechanism such as voting or invites (similar to beta sotware). Why would members contribute to a common resource set versus keeping them for themselves? To gain attention! Similar drivers are seen in charities all over the world.

As you can see, money and religion are not opposed to each to, yet are closely related. It is an area ripe for further study and discussion, so please share your ideas and use this as you see fit!

One thought on “The role of capital in Syntheist communities

  1. Dennis Pachernegg

    This is funny. During the last weeks, I myself have been thinking a lot about the spiritual nature of money. And, suddenly along comes your blog post.

    I would argue that money is a subcategory of a much broader concept: capital. Capital as such, is nothing but crystalized attention. And attention, finally, is nothing but a manifestation of spirit.

    We speak about intellectual capital, human capital, beauty capital, industrial capital et cetera. Obviously, people are aware of a certain something that connects all these concepts. But what is it? It is the quality of these, to act, directly or indirectly, as a means of wish fulfillment. You can, at least potentially, get something in return, for any form of capital.
    High beauty capital may buy you a dinner, intellectual capital can help you running your business, All of these above are convertible. Either into money directly, or into something you would otherwise have to spend money for.

    Now, where does spirit come into the picture?
    Take a look at what it needs to increase, or make available in the first place, the different forms of capital: attention.

    Any form of Capital is crystallized attention. Attention paid by someone, somewhere, somehow, to something else. And attention is nothing but another word for spirit. Those who practice meditation will probably know this through own experience.

    You need to “pay” attention if you want to increase your intellectual capital, through studying, for example. You need to pay attention, if you want to flirt yourself into a drink in a club. You need to pay attention if you want to find a fitting gift for your mom’s birthday, to make her happy, and to become happy yourself because she is.
    All these are ultimately forms of wish fulfillment, or leading to wish fulfillment.

    What makes money so special among other forms of capital?
    It’s the illusion of the constancy and commutability of money. Usually, we treat on unit of money in your hand, as eqivalent to one unit of money in my hand. But this is simply not true. Why?

    Because the value of one unit of money, i.e. its potential of wish fulfillment, varies. How much you can get out of a certain amount of money, depends on

    -where you are
    -how smart you are
    -how much time you invest for thinking about it
    -how many unfulfilled needs/wishes you have, and which of those are the most important to you.
    -who you know
    -etc.
    (All this is also true for the other forms of capital. For example, beauty capital might buy you a drink in a club, but not in the desert.)

    Whenever we buy something, we agree to the exchange of one form of capital for another. If we buy a ball of ice cream, we give an amount of capital to the ice cream guy, and he supplies us with another form, and we agree that this is fair.
    But we only say it’s fair/just/equal, because the many factors that determine the existing difference value are either not knowable, potentially infinite, or we simply don’t have the time to think them through.

    Money is the a form of capital, hence attention, hence spirit, that is, by common sense treated as remaining constant over time, space, and owner. Simply because we can’t calculate the exact difference every time we come into contact with it.
    And because we treat its value as constant, which it isn’t, money becomes the one thing that causes most inequality among dividuals.

    We can, however, reduce this inequality. Again, through increasing our ability to calculate the differences in value that come with location, owner’s intelligence, and the other forms of capital that play into the value of money. But for that ability to increase, we have to pay it something: attention.

    Reply

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