Six Tricks to Fix Democracy (And Other Small Problems)

Some days ago, as the hang-fire drama of the US election was inflaming the internet and crisis fatigue seemed to be gnawing an ever-widening hole in our collective mental health, I decided it was time to turn away from the news, take several deep breaths, spend a minute communing with any humans, pets, plants, trees, shrubs, or other living objects that were nearby, and think about what steps we could each take, without waiting, to pull democracy back from the cliff edge.

This post is the result. It is about six patterns of democracy that we can start building now — in our communities and organizations, and in our politics and nations — for a stronger and more powerful democratic fabric that both resists tyranny and sustains life.

Each of these patterns looks at a different facet of democratic process: scale, content, context, shape, mechanisms, and quality. They are not new. Each, in some way, is older than democracy itself. Once through them, we’ll look at how they can be combined to reinforce each other and move us toward a more just and beautiful world.

Scale: bringing democracy home

Attention, resembling gravity, seems attracted to bigness. As media ownership has consolidated into fewer and fewer larger and larger corporations, the topics that take our attention have also shifted toward distant, inaccessible political spectacles in which we are largely powerless, and away from decisions close to us where we can actually make a difference.

This is not a good thing for democracy. National politics is a veritable training ground for learned helplessness.

Countering this trend probably requires the banal but radical act of participating in the many layers of democracy that exist — or can exist — between us and our national governments. Cities, local councils, districts, and even provinces or states have much more accessible and flexible systems of democratic participation than nations.

It can be startling — even a little scary — to discover that one person can make a significant difference in a political process, possibly leading to the strange realization that the systems we’re in are not fixed, but are formed from human imagination and will. What alternatives can we imagine?

If frustrated with democratic impotence, we can keep reducing the scale until we find a place where our contribution matters. Perhaps that is at the level of city or district, neighbourhood, school or community organization. Perhaps it is in our own household. (A few peculiar households I know of have even built their own apps for this.) I think there is almost always such a place. If not, we can create it.

Power tends to flow up hierarchy unless it is reclaimed from below. By creating a context for hyper-local democracy, we can give ourselves not just a personal voice, but a collective voice that other levels of power need to contend with.

Context: building democratic economies

The conventional place of democracy is in making and enforcing rules, which is called government. But the entities that influence much of our lives are not governments, but corporations. And corporations are usually not democratic in any meaningful way.

This prevalence of undemocratic corporate power is at work in many of our most pressing problems, including polarization in politics, catastrophic inequality, climate change, and an epidemic of meaninglessness. The force of the market is supposed to provide a feedback loop on corporate behavior, but this logic demands that citizens — who care about all sorts of facets of the world around them — be reduced to consumers, whose care can only be voiced through shopping. We live in democratic nations, but in openly plutocratic economies.

There are alternatives. If we wish for a renewal of democracy, then finding, building, and supporting democratic enterprises is key. Usually these take the form of cooperatives. To grow economic democracy, we can certainly buy from these businesses. More importantly, we can participate in them, as members, employees, suppliers, and directors.

The combination of co-ops and the rise of businesses as platforms — containers in which exchanges between citizens occur — gives a wide horizon for rethinking conventional structures of corporate organization and power. Co-ops can become their own economies, facilitating rather than controlling flows of value among their participants.

Like in other contexts, economic democracy survives through use. We can inspect the economies around us—employers, suppliers of food, goods, media, medicine, ideas, services — through the lens of democratic agency, see what knobs and dials may exist there, and begin turning them.

Content: deciding about things, not just people

“Democracy” means rule by the people, but in most cases the scope of what’s called democracy is limited to choosing who will make the decisions for us. There is no practical reason why this has to be the case, especially in an era when we are all subject to ubiquitous, continuous digital opinion measurement anyway (in our interactions with social media, among other places).

Through ballot propositions and referenda, some jurisdictions do allow us to decide on some policy questions. The more local and frequent these decisions become, the more they can become the domain of human consideration rather than the domain of money and partisanship.

Switzerland, with its system of cantons, has been operating as a partial direct democracy for centuries. More recently Taiwan has made bold experiments in digital direct democracy in its vTaiwan program, using Pol.is for aggregating public opinion in ways that show where the less-polarizing outcomes might lie. Cities, notably Barcelona and Madrid, are at the vanguard of direct democracy experiments, allowing citizens to allocate portions of city budgets and vote on policy proposals. On the more radical edge, Rojava in Syria and the indigenous Zapatistas in Mexico have adopted federated forms of direct democracy in their semi-autonomous territories.

Making decisions about issues rather than personalities can break up the deadlock of polarization. When we’re not forced into a binary choice between two necessary evils, but can exercise our curiosity, vision, and opinions directly with substantial questions, we may realize that we agree in ways we didn’t expect.

For this to happen, such decisions need to be frequent and local enough that they don’t themselves become flashpoints for polarization. (Otherwise, one decision can become a proxy for multiple issues and grievances, as was arguably the case with Brexit and some other high-profile referenda.)

Shape: building horizontal federations

National governments are generally triangular in shape. A single head of state sits at the top, numerous minions at the bottom, and below that even more numerous citizens. This is generally not a very responsive shape for a power structure. The formal mechanism of feedback is the election, when the very bottom of the pyramid, in theory, gets to decide about the very top.

What other shapes could we go ahead and work with, since these triangular nation states don’t seem to be doing the job very well?

One possibility is to build horizontal power by linking together democratic organizations in different triangles. An example of this is the international coalitions of cities that are effectively undermining national negligence on climate change by enacting their own city-to-city agreements and policies. Another example is the New Economy Coalition, a 200-member coalition of grassroots organizations working for economic democracy and social justice. A historically powerful example is the labour union: a democratic coalition that forms horizontally across pyramidal boundaries, and by so doing changes the balance of power within those pyramids.

These horizontal coalitions can happen at any layer of the pyramid, from provinces, to cities, organizations, or even citizens (as campaign groups like Avaaz have amply demonstrated).

Horizontal coalitions can start to reduce our dependence on states or corporations to do the right thing, and let communities of practice or context build shared commitments and strategies across pyramidal boundaries.

One way to do this is to look at whatever movements or groups I am part of and ask: who is doing similar work or facing similar challenges elsewhere, and how could we help each other?

Mechanism: beyond the binary vote

As Pia Mancini has eloquently pointed out, our mechanisms of democratic engagement are horribly out of date. They were designed before computers, calculators, telephones, or automobiles, when logistical constraints made simplicity paramount, and elitism intentionally restricted the scope of democratic input.

Outside of politics, some progress has been made on new ways to bring together human judgements in the past three centuries.

These innovations include:

  • “Liquid” democracy, where voters can entrust their votes on specific questions to trusted contacts who know about the topic at hand — a possible voluntary compromise between direct and representative democracy;
  • Score, ranked choice, and other non-binary voting methods, which give a more nuanced means of entering input and capturing the collective intelligence of a group
  • Conviction voting, which aims to reduce the effect of short-term swings of opinion by giving more weight to stable positions
  • Multivariate decision systems like Ethelo or Pol.is, that facilitate finding common ground and less-controversial outcomes that are invisible in simplistic voting systems
  • “Swarm” decision making tools that give real-time feedback on collective judgement, which seems to increase the accuracy of some collective decisions

Though the results of small experiments with these mechanisms are promising, most of them have never been tested at scale.

As we introduce new layers of democracy, we can also introduce new mechanisms that give a more nuanced and intelligent way of combining many voices into one choice. The design of democracy ain’t over yet.

Quality: rediscovering how to listen

Finally, let’s consider the quality of the deliberation that leads to, through, or from a collective decision. A vote is an extraordinarily low-bandwidth form of communication. Sometimes this is good (for example when independent input is needed on a simple decision), but if we want to build stronger democracy from the bottom up then we also need to (re)learn how to do civil, qualitative, inquiring dialogue that brings us into the perspectives of others.

Indra Adnan and The Alternative UK‘s dialogue events and Nora Bateson’s Warm Data Labs are two striking examples of how this can be done. Listening is powerful, both for the hearer and the heard. Trust the People, a spin-off from the Extinction Rebellion movement, is leading trainings and facilitating groups around the world who are rebuilding habits of deliberative local democracy using citizen assemblies.

In small groups that know how to use it, consent decision making is an efficient method of making collective decisions that avoids both the tedium of consensus and the polarization of majority votes. For day-to-day operations in many democratic organizations (particularly those practicing Sociocracy) it is the go-to method for making effective, inclusive decisions. In tandem with this, speaking in “rounds” gives time to be heard and time to listen — important in building trust in small democratic groups, and aiding the balanced input that’s been experimentally shown to support, or at least correlate with, improved collective intelligence.

Weaving the threads

Those of you who have made it this far may rightly be asking: so what? If we do all these things, somehow, how will that prevent, for example, the election of another Donald Trump?

It is a fair question. It’s difficult to know for sure what patterns of causation have led to the current state of politics in the USA, or other places with similarly troubling trends. But, making a few plausible guesses, we can look at how the positive feedback loops holding the current state of politics in place could be interrupted by these six patterns.

Historically, it seems that populist politics emerges out of a flammable mixture of economic distress (the real or perceived threat of economic hardship), political disempowerment (the sense that the powers that be are not listening or accessible, or are following their own agendas), and the existence of some other, whether internal or external, that can be blamed for the state of affairs.

This mixture becomes more incendiary when inter-partisan communications break down, and views about basic facts of the world become divergent among political camps. This can happen through partisan media, through social media filter bubbles, or through social divides that stymie communication (for example between ethnic groups, classes, or geographies).

Democratic localization brings politics to the level of real people, where abstract categories (“Liberals” or “Immigrants” or “Trump supporters”) are less believable. Humans never quite fit the one-dimensional labels we put on them, and the more the subjects of those labels are our neighbours, and we’re interacting with them rather than talking about them, the less divisive power the labels have.

Economic democracy intervenes in the feedback loop between financial hardship and reactionary populist politics. Democratic enterprises give scope for participation in economic solutions that don’t involve blaming immigrants, fighting over state support, or placing responsibility on far off and inaccessible corporate masters.

Direct democracy can dilute polarization by removing the artificial grouping of issues around party policies. Is a correlation between “family values” and climate change denial really coming from voters’ beliefs, or is this an artifact of party groupings? Separating the two can let us get to the needs and values that are obscured by polarizing categories, and allow people an avenue of engagement that’s not tied to zero-sum opposition.

Horizontal coalitions help all of these other patterns spread across contexts, replicating things that work from one place to another.

New mechanisms of democratic decision-making can help expand the ambit of democracy without making it onerous. This is important, because one of the greatest impediments to participatory democracy in practice is how much citizen attention is required to make it meaningful.

High-bandwidth, qualitative engagement encourages actually coming to understand and appreciate the context of opposing viewpoints.

These six alternatives are not a panacea, or a replacement for current electoral systems. They are each a facet of democracy that can bear its own fruit. When combined, they make a fabric of democratic culture that could not only help stave off authoritarian decay, but also give us more vibrant, engaged, intelligent, and capable citizens and groups.

Strangely, the value of democracy is something that most of the political spectrum seems to agree on. Isn’t it peculiar, then, that no party has made the expansion of democracy part of its platform? Of course it doesn’t take much cynicism to see why this is. Real democracy undermines the monopolistic power of party politics. We cannot expect politics, which is powerful in inverse proportion to the degree society is democratic, to protect or grow democracy. We have to do it ourselves.

If we believe in democracy, we need to make it more than just an idea we act on at election time. We need to make it part of our lives. When we do that — with the appropriate structures, and in a context of efficient decision making and execution mechanisms — we are giving a much, much stronger shove-off to authoritarianism and tyranny than anything that happens at the ballot box.

Democracy is contagious. It’s also delicate. The R of democracy is entirely dependent on the enthusiasm and integrity with which it is done.

Reprieve

On November 4th, when it appeared that Donald Trump may have, by some ghastly force, gained a second term in office, there was a gloomy mood in this house. One housemate donned a sloth-shaped “onesie” and brewed a large amount of tea. Another asked a Tarot deck how to resist blunt power.

Eventually, the US election made a gradual and nail-biting turn to the left, and the mood lifted. The house had music in it again, and someone baked a chocolate cake.

The world is in rough shape. We’ve been hammered by a pandemic, garish police brutality, social unrest, reactionary populism, fires, and the smoldering threat of climate change. We live in times of crisis. Still, there has hardly been a more appropriate moment for building alternatives to systems that are obviously broken.

Crisis or not, it is business as usual that is taking us into a hellish world. National election victories don’t change that unless they are followed up with systemic change. Let’s step off the train and use the opportunities we have to make a deeper democracy real.

Now Is The Time for an Economy of Kindness

The world seems to be moving in two opposing directions: in one, there is death, sickness, loneliness, cruelty, and despair at the crevasse of political turmoil and economic hardship we seem to be sinking into. In the other, there is a wave of collective solidarity, kindness, determination, and altruistic ingenuity that may be unique in recorded history.

Which of these will prevail?

Though outcomes seem to be shaped by forces beyond ourselves, on some questions we have a choice. How governments are structured and when we have to pay taxes are set in law. But our economy, for all its problems, has an element of freedom. What we buy and who we buy it from is up to us. What we produce and who we give it to is up to us. We may be controlled by the tyranny of mass production, prices, and advertising, but this subservience is ultimately voluntary. We have the power to step into a new kind of economy, if we choose to use it.

The economy we have now is neither healthy nor rational. To see our way past it requires a shift of assumptions, not just about economics, but about what it means to be a successful human being on planet earth. This article is a guess at what pieces are needed to transform our personal economies. It starts with some context, then outlines five steps towards an economy of kindness. Links are provided to a repository of resources for making these steps real.

The era of greed

For almost 250 years, we have lived in an economic system designed to be driven by greed. In classical economic theory, selfish motives of rational, isolated individuals power a vast mechanism of commerce and production in a spiral of never ending increase.

So far, this mechanism has been spectacularly effective at inventing new technologies, extending average lifespans, turning natural resources into products, supplying those who can afford it a staggering diversity of material possessions, destroying ecosystems, and producing enormous quantities of cheap, low-quality food. It has reduced extreme poverty in many places while making the very rich much richer and the moderately poor much poorer. It has spawned political decay through the commercialization of attention and cursed us with an epidemic of obesity, loneliness, anxiety, and despair.

Under the pressure of the pandemic, the ideology of the greed economy has been imploding before our eyes. In a span of weeks, nearly the entire population of the planet was asked to reign in their personal desires for the good of others. The altruism of front-line workers inspired celebrations in all corners of the world. Corporations that were supposed to be the bastions of capitalist self-sufficiency began demanding ever larger handouts from governments. Governments that were the bastions of free-market libertarianism started cutting checks for their citizens. A few billionaires even announced donations of double-digit percentages of their net worth, and some governments sponsored volunteer hackathons the size of small cities.

Long before this cataclysm whipped the veil off, the intellectual validity of the selfish rational actor paradigm was already falling apart. Experimental research has shown that we don’t actually behave as selfish, rational agents by default – our natures are selfish and altruistic in almost equal measure, and hardly rational at all; and the material wealth which the economy of greed is supposed to provide doesn’t turn out to be a valid predictor of well-being. Endless acquisition doesn’t make us happy.

A pandemic of possibilities

The collective altruism we’ve seen in the past months could be just an anomaly on top of another transfer of wealth and power up the food chain. As small businesses die, big businesses swallow taxpayer dollars, and governments gain new tools to surveil and control their citizens, we may return to an even less equal, more cruel version of the economy we already have.

That is perhaps a likely outcome, but it is not the only one. As the economy of greed has threatened to collapse from a million cracks in its pavement of normalcy, shoots of something different have appeared.

These shoots are an invitation from a possible world. This possible economy is more rational than the economy of greed, because it accepts our whole selves. It sees altruism, well-being, connection, and love as drivers of our actions. Rather than designing only for the worst, it designs to bring out the best. Rather than narrowing the definition of value into a single monetary quantity, it expands it to include the things that make us most alive and human: our relationships, meaning, and quality of experience. Rather than hoping for future change from above — from new technology, or better politicians, or a deus ex machina enlightenment — it enacts change from below, in the present. It imagines, builds, and celebrates what could be, instead of fighting what is. Knowing that getting everything figured out and predicted and centrally controlled is neither wise nor possible, it relies on thousands upon thousands of experiments happening simultaneously, sharing knowledge and building on the work of others. Setting aside abstract dichotomies between competition and cooperation, individual and collective, freedom and security, or justice and mercy, it finds concrete, case-specific solutions that step lightly over ideological fault lines.

This article is my personal attempt to describe five facets of a possible economy of kindness. I don’t have the answers, but I do have a thought: wherever we are, let us step into doing whatever we are called to do to lead us out the bright end of this tunnel. The future is waiting. It is up to us.

1. Being and feeling as whole humans

A holistic economy starts with holistic experience of being human. This is a superpower, because attentiveness to our genuine human needs breaks the chain of illusion the greed economy depends on. The greed economy’s surrogates for fulfillment – in the form of entertainment, consumption, and status — are only as alluring as we are desensitized to what we really need.

Giving ourselves space and permission to be with our inner experience is not just self help. It is also economically revolutionary. It is from an open heart that the courage to look our situation in the eye arises. Activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy says that we grieve for what we love. Sometimes the path to whole-hearted action leads through darkness. Sometimes an active hope lies beneath many layers of very reasonable despair.

I remind myself to take time away from the deluge of information and distraction that we all have such easy access to. This is time to let the heart be heard, to feel what the body has to say of this pandemic, to bring the mind home. To breathe.

Sometimes this requires firm boundaries. One friend of mine decided to leave his phone turned off for the first half of each day. Fasting from the internet one day each week works well for me.

When I get closer to center, I realize that much of what my busy mind thinks is normal and important can just fall away and not be missed at all. Another chunk that I may have been neglecting is vital, and needs attention to come alive. The greed economy depends on our imbalance and our numbness to keep the cycle of dissatisfaction and consumption going.

Whatever tools or traditions you have that allow inner awareness to unfold are also tools for making a holistic economy possible. They are antidotes to the outward-facing madness of consumerism.

In every community, there are human and non-human beings and environments that help us come home to ourselves. These are worth finding. We – the community of earthly life – are our own networked psychological support system. This is a good moment to tap into that system.

Fear, sadness, and anger can be felt and accepted for what they might contain, and in the process they become things we are observing and taking care of, rather than things that are controlling us.

Untended or unconscious, these emotions can make us gullible. Fear has always been a favourite tool for consolidating power, and anger a favorite tool for wielding it. Watch carefully. Be with your emotions. Don’t let them be stirred from without. I have sovereignty over my own response.

This tending of the inner garden is the foundation of capacity to serve, to share, and to build something more beautiful in the world around us.

See resources for being and feeling.

2. Reaching out in community

The greed economy’s power depends on the perception that we are separate, self-interested individuals. Luckily, we are not.

What are the larger wholes of which I am part? Household, neighbourhood, community, district, city, nation, planet. We are each woven into a web of our relationships to people, to our non-human companions, to the natural world, Gaia, rivers, mountains, trees, ocean; connecting by seeing, by hearing, by touch, by looking at eyes, by listening to stories, by sharing music, by imagining together what could be, and perhaps laughing at our own foolishness and excitement while still letting it fill the soul with daring possibility.

If we care for each other, we can be free. It is only through the network of our interconnections that we gain independence from the poverty of selfishness.

This web of connections is the fabric of an economy of kindness. It is like wires and radio signals for the internet, or nerves for the brain, or transmission lines for the electrical grid.

It is our original birthright and source of identity as living beings and social animals. This birthright can be unwittingly sacrificed to the shadow identities of mass media: identification with brands and celebrities and sports and politics and the dehumanizing quantification of social media. These things hack our biology, creating a virtual reality of satisfaction. Our original capacity for connection is still there, though, born into our flesh, just waiting to be brought to life.

In this pandemic, paradoxically, human connection seems to have come up in value. We’ve realized that we need to be connected, to each other and to the rest of life.

At the same time we are in some measure realizing that the emperor is wearing no clothes. The industrial economy to which we’ve sacrificed our mental health, our planetary health, our climate, and thousands and thousands of other species’ very existence has never really delivered on its promise of full and satisfying lives.

There are as many ways to rekindle this direct connection as there are links in the web of life.

We can start by playing the ball where it lies: if, for example, you’re spending hours a day on video calls, make some space to hear how everyone’s doing and feeling before getting down to business. If your life includes answering emails and WhatsApp messages, consider if you could use these tools to build connection in the place where you live. The neighbourhood I’m in started an email list, and pretty soon it was being used to schedule home made-bread and chocolate deliveries, share tools, and offer rides and pickups among the neighbours.

Go quietly into the forest. Plant a garden, however small. Even a few pots of greens on your porch or balcony or beside the sidewalk. Better yet, find a way to garden with others. Learn the stories of your neighbours.

Nature is a great source of solace. Over and over in calls with people in isolation, I have heard that it is contact with nature – whether in a city park, or a forest, or a farm – that anchors lives that are otherwise disconnected from routine. Gardens are also good therapists.

See resources for reaching out in community.

3. Giving courageously

If connection is the wires of the new economy’s social power grid, the electricity that passes through them is trust, reciprocity, and kindness. In her beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, indigenous author, mother, and scientist Robin Wall Kimmer gives a good explanation of the difference between gift and exchange. “The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of the gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity.” She points out that a quantified equal and fair exchange – the basic ideal transactional unit of the conventional economy – leaves no relationship behind.

In the famous Prisoners Dilemma scenario of game theory, there are many strategies that lead to a prevalence of cooperation. All of them begin with giving, without guarantee of receiving in return. In fact, in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, all of the most effective strategies for individual success also begin by giving.

Such mechanics are true, but also almost beside the point. To give is to trust, to plant a flag on the generosity of the world, to become part of a benificent universe.

For millennia, sharing was our economy. Giving into a community seeds the field for reciprocity and mutual aid. It is tending a garden from which the community can all find sustenance.

Along with the waves of viral infection, waves of spontaneous kindness have been sweeping the world. Projects like KarunaVirus or  have sprung up just to document this trend.

Where we give from, and where we give to matters. I ask myself: is this kindness coming from an open heart? If not, how can I shift what my role or gift is? And, where is this gift going? Is this creating joy, and a web of gratitude that will outlast the pandemic? What are the economic implications of this gift?

Governments around the world have taken to giving bailouts to their citizens and companies, but often with very little thought to where that calculated generosity actually lands. What if bailouts had to circulate among local economies, rather than making a bee-line straight for the coffers of the world’s wealthiest corporations, leaving small and local businesses struggling and in need of further bailouts?

I wish to give strategically, but most importantly, from an open heart. Remember that gift are also contagious. In your neighbourhood, there are probably those who have the resources to give without suffering, and there are probably those who will suffer unless there’s giving. When the recipe is right, those who have more than they need will step up to the plate.

For this to work, the atomic self of classical economics has to loosen its grip on our minds a little, so we can see ourselves in the whole. That doesn’t have to be painful. In return for turning in the little “me me mine” self, we can get a bigger self in exchange.
Giving starts the wheel of reciprocity turning. For it to continue, we also need systems that support it.

4. Building the mechanics of a new economy

Economies rarely work by good intentions alone. Human nature is a mixed bag. The privilege of enabling the beautiful goes with the responsibility of attenuating the ugly.

In the economy of greed, we are encouraged to build new products, but not to build new economic systems. The features of new economic systems that work: democracy; decentralization; solidarity; and community.

We can think of an economy as flows of goods, flows of information (or control), and flows of money (or medium of exchange). In the conventional economy, all these flows are structured in large-scale hierarchies: goods flow from mega-scale mines, farms and factories, through distribution systems, to consumers; money flows from consumers into larger and larger aggregations of wealth and corporate or government coffers, and then back down the food chain to workers; information follows a similar pattern, centrally controlled by states and mammoth technology companies.

In an economy of kindness the pyramid changes shape into a network, coercive participation becomes elective, and flows form loops at much smaller, more local scales.

There is something else these three flows leave out: affect and meaning – how we feel about the things we’re participating in. This factor is present at every interaction in the economic network. Think about it: every time we make a transaction, there is some way that that transaction makes us feel. Whether that is buying something from Amazon, or from our local farmer’s market. And at every transaction there is also a relationship of affect. There’s how we feel about the relationship we’re in to make the transaction.

In the economy of greed, the affective relationship between entities is deeply asymmetrical. On the production side, it is about engineering experiences through advertising, product design, marketing, and user experience design that make us feel something like good – the small doses of pleasure-inducing chemicals that squirt into our brains on seeing a Facebook like, the satisfaction of unboxing a new iPhone, the pleasure of getting a good deal on eBay.

The greed economy plays our nervous systems like a gamelan orchestra, tricking us into consuming things. This is akin to the way that low quality starchy, sugary, salty foods hack our biology. We may crave them, and feel full after eating them, but they’re not providing what our bodies actually need.

Advertising, branding, and convenience give the psychological equivalent of sugar coating on economic flows that actually harm our health. It is a hack of the same sort as junk food, but much more pernicious. As the economy gives us fewer opportunities for whole-human feeling, it gains more and more power with the ability to microdose us with shallow injections of pleasure while leading us farther and farther away from truly satisfying lives. Through the bait of pleasure, we end up feeling worse and worse.
There is nothing wrong with our tendency to want beautiful and useful things, the appreciation and respect of our peers, or information about the world around us. But these naturally occurring mechanisms were not prepared for targeted attack. Like a cell succumbing to a virus, with no natural immunity, we are not built to withstand a sophisticated, carefully optimized exploit that targets our receptor sites for pleasure while stealing our lives and the living systems we depend on.

The function of structure in an economy of kindness is to connect flows of real economic good with flows of real affective good. In other words, to make it easy, fun, and healthy to do things right.

In every part of the world, legions of mostly obscure pioneers have been working on this for decades. The economy of kindness goes in the opposite direction from the standardization and monotony of the conventional economy, so there are as many approaches as there are people taking them. But, there are a few patterns that appear in many places where new economics is emerging. Some of these patterns are as old as humanity. Looking for these in your community and neighbourhood is a good way of finding the network of people building structures for an economy of kindness.

Mutual aid and sharing networks that allow us to help each other and make good use of the resources we have, without depending on money.

Cooperative businesses that turn the hierarchical pyramid upside down with democratic ownership.

Micro and community credit that humanizes the process of access to capital, and opens doors to healthy growth for small scale enterprises while keeping money in the community.

Local currencies that encourage circulation of wealth within a local area, supporting people whose livelihoods are creatively tied to place and escaping the tyranny of debt-based money (and the risk of economic collapse).

Community benefit enterprises that operate as effective businesses, but for the benefit of the community. These can be anything from a railroad line to an apartment block to a holding company that runs a currency and wind farm.

Local gardens and farms – wherever you are, there are people not far away growing food, building the foundation of change at the level of nutrients.

Community democratic governance can allow a community to make legitimate, coherent decisions together, building solidarity and the possibility of generating sufficient community will to take collective steps toward an economy of kindness.

Economically-aware activism that makes strategic demands to allow community sovereignty over economic flows.

None of these things is easy. Separately, they are very hard indeed. But together, they make a mutually-supporting network that can start to form the skeleton of a new world.

Building alternate economic systems is challenging, but economic depression is the mother of economic innovation.

This may be the first time that a depression has coexisted with the internet. This gives the technical ability to build things locally with an entire world’s experience and collective learning on tap. Today, we can create an alternative digital mutual credit currency or a mutual aid network or a local email distribution list in minutes. We can learn what neighbourhoods across the world are doing to solve the same problems we face. The possibilities are enormous.

Wherever you live, find out who in your neighbourhood or area is one of those dreamers who has been thinking about or playing with alternative economics for years, even decades. They seem to exist nearly everywhere. It’s time for them to be called up like a reserve force of economic system construction workers and start rolling out new systems.

See resources on building economic structures.

5. Living in a more beautiful world

We’ve talked about opening to ourselves and to the web of human and non-human life in which we live, about kick-starting cycles of reciprocity with our own generosity, and about building the economic mechanisms that are structurally supportive of an economy of kindness. These are the building blocks, but to actually inhabit the world we would like to see exist requires a leap of something like faith.

In Donella Meadows’ classic book on systems, she talks about the levels of systems change. One of the most powerful levels is the level of the system goals – what is the system trying to do? In the case of our economy, we may wish to update that goal, perhaps from “grow the GDP” to “wellbeing for humans and planetary life”.

But this is not the most powerful level of systems change. The more powerful level is that of the paradigm the system operates under.

Visionaries throughout history have discovered a dangerous trick: there is power in envisioning the world as it could be, and then behaving as much as possible as if that world already exists.

How do we actually step into an economy of kindness, without requiring permission from anyone?

It has been noted that walking on two legs is the process of continuously falling over forward and then catching ourselves. To the extent that human society makes progress, it is by a similar mechanism. It requires being out of balance. This unbalance is the visionary foolishness of behaving as though what we see as possible already exists.

When we’re lucky, a leg steps forward and catches us. Of course, there is no guarantee this will happen. Greed and cruelty and may win. But, at this point, for those who are watching the arc of history and ecology, there may be two options: either we risk failure as foolish idealists; or we stay in our comfort zone and accept the defeat of our species. If we don’t at least believe in the possibility of the improbable, and act on it, prospects for the human civilizational experiment look grim.

Once we’ve opened to ourselves, and to the web of human and non-human life in which we live, and we know something about the harm that comes of the products and services we consume, they cease to be fun any more. Joanna Macy, borrowing from Buddhism, calls this the Revulsion.

The alternative hinges on what Charles Eisenstein calls Reunion — coming home to ourselves as connected with all of life. This perception of Interbeing (to borrow zen teacher Thich Naht Hanh’s phrase), is a more challenging, but also more rewarding way of being. It is ultimately more fun than either sense-deadening consumerism, or a reasonable but nihilistic acceptance of apocalypse. It is also more effective.

We can overtake the greed economy not by tackling it like a football player, but simply by building a more satisfying alternative, stepping into it, and inviting others to join us.

This vision of a kind economy may be idealism. But, so were many of the movements that changed history. You could say that the laws of biological human nature prevent such a bright future. But, you could similarly say that the laws of gravity flatten things to the earth. And yet we build bridges and airplanes and skyscrapers and send rockets to the moon. Human nature, accepted, can no more prevent us from building an economy of kindness than gravity could prevent us from walking on two legs.

Let’s build the economy we want to live in, and inhabit it while it’s under construction. Let’s let contagious kindness spread like a virus. Let’s lean forward, beyond what’s currently real, and take the next strategically daring step into what is possible.

A Sermon for the Choir

Please note, dear reader and esteemed member of the choir: this hortatory fragment was written some time ago. Since then, the climate has changed just slightly. This means it is already out of date. However, it remains less out of date than most hymnals, so the choir may still find it of modest interest.

How shall I begin? This world is filled with pain, with desperation and peril, but it is also full with unending beauty. Humankind, victims and perpetrators of our own stupidity and heedlessness, are also beautiful. While not shutting our eyes to the condition of our world and our fellow creatures, and of our own species, we must keep our hearts open to the beauty that surrounds us, wherever we are. Faith is the antidote to despair. Faith is not the province of facts; it is the province of experience.

All things are connected. Strip mines in Appalachia are connected to families who watch television for four hours each day, and can’t listen to each other. The ones who are killed and maimed in far away places by bombs dropped from planes from our countries are connected to the ones who lie hopeless beneath cardboard boxes and blankets on the streets of our cities. Not caring is connected to not caring.

Children who grow into teenagers who grow into adults without learning to respect and care for the world outside themselves are connected to politicians who do not respect the truth or care for the lives and living communities that are entrusted to them. A million people marching through the world’s streets pleading for a livable planet is connected to me listening, truly, when you speak.

It is a moral challenge. It is about truth, and ethics, and the fate of our children’s children, and the children of all beings. It is about being righteous in our relation to the future, and to the present. It is about being good.

It is one struggle. If we realize this, we can see that there is sanctity in working for justice, peace, and wholeness, and that learning to be virtuous is a revolutionary act.

Virtue is not fashionable. Goodness, sincerity, and innocence are not fashionable. Plant a flag on these things and you may be laughed at, but it is the only way to push forward towards a brighter future without being, and looking, like hypocrites.

If we want peace in the world, we have to be peaceful. If we try to fix the wrongs of the world out there while ignoring the cultivation of our own peace, we are too weak for the job at hand. Ghandi spoke of soul force. But we cannot have soul force if our souls are muddled with postmodern confusion about whether it is possible to tell right from wrong.

Real activism goes from the center of one’s self to the farthest reaches of the world. The strongest change comes from within. If our actions are harmonious and based on the same principles all the way from our closest, most immediate effects to out farthest, most distant effects, then we are strong.

The foresight that sees that unmitigated carbon emissions will lead to dire consequences is the same foresight that sees that children growing up in a culture of moral vacuity will lead to dire consequences. Politics would divide us into camps who see either the outer ethics of the world or the inner ethics of character, but seldom both. In the hands of vice, politics would divide and conquer virtue. This is not the way forward.

There is a universal ethics. They are values shared by all peoples and espoused by all faiths. If we base our efforts to save this earth on them, we can communicate across creed and culture and politics.

There is sanctity in all life. The world, created through whatever means, deserves to live. We may steward and cultivate, but not destroy.

If we accept the reductionist premise that all is mechanical, then we are attempting to make a meaningful argument on behalf of life, and of future life, in a context in which life itself has no meaning. It is like attempting to lift one’s self up by one’s own feet. Such a capitulation is not necessary.

We see that there is sacredness in standing up for justice and peace, and there is revolution in sincerity, kindness, honesty, and virtue. To be strong in righting the wrongs of the world, we must work for rightness and harmony and sanctity in ourselves, and among ourselves, and between ourselves and all of creation.

We must be ambassadors of truth and goodness, and yes: also of beauty, for real beauty also transcends boundaries of creed and culture. This is not the sort of beauty one has to be taught to appreciate. It is not the beauty of modern art, or of contemporary design, or of fashion, or of the avant-garde in any field. The distinguishing feature of the avant-garde is its speedy obsolescence. The distinguishing feature of beauty is that it is never obsolete.

Bringing truth, and goodness, and beauty into the world can happen in the humblest of ways. A smile. Work well done. Honesty. There are a million ways in which our human faculties can serve in the growth of the world, in the unfolding of something new. We cannot predict what that something will look like, but we can be, as fully and honestly and artfully as our capacities permit, today, and that will lead us on to what is next.

Jesus, I’ve heard, said to love your neighbour as yourself. Our neighbours are all the living things we come into contact with. Our neighbourhood is the community of all such things, and the culture that exists among them, and our relationships to them. If love fills the gap between our selves and all of our living relations, earth, plant, animal, human, then we cease to be an atom drifting about bumping into other inanimate objects, but become part of something larger, and can begin to see ourselves in all living things.

No matter how far human ignorance and greed goes in damaging and impoverishing the world, Life persists in its patient working of miracles. Even in the midst of the deepest poverty and oppression, there is light. Seeds sprout through cracks in the pavement.

The spark is always there. It cannot be extinguished. We must keep our eyes open, and notice it, and collaborate with it in brightening the world.