A recent discussion on Twitter cemented the fact that I need to stop using the word "capitalism" to describe my economic beliefs. The problem with it is that the ideal of capitalism that I actually believe in (the "voluntary exchange of goods and services for mutual benefit") doesn't exist in the real world.
Capitalism as it exists today sees money as an end rather than a means, and deliberately ignores the structural power disparities that hinder the existence of true "voluntary exchange". In particular, a lot of powerful capitalists try to paint the "voluntary" part as meaning that there shouldn't be any regulation of markets (whether in labour or in anything else), thus leaving the field open for predatory capitalism where the rich get richer and existing power structures are further entrenched rather than challenged.
There are necessary preconditions that need to exist for the ideal form of "voluntary exchange of goods and services for mutual benefit" to exist. The smoke screen that a lot of capitalists try to put up is to pretend that those preconditions exist when they don't. This is most obvious in employment negotations (whether between employers and employees or in determining government regulations) where, on one side, what the employer has at risk is typically something like a few points on their profit margin. By contrast, on the employee side, our society has been structured such that, aside from the wealthy elite who get to have "retired early" rather than "be unemployed", "having a job" is integral not just to being able to afford food and shelter, but also to social standing and self respect.
The so-called tech "meritocracy" is another example. That's a time based economy: your prestige is based not only on your interest and innate talent, but also the sheer amount of time you're able to put in. Participation is contingent on either being paid to participate on work time, or else having a lot of free time (itself often a function of economic privilege). Calling that culture a meritocracy is only possible if one remains deliberately blind not only to the inequitable distribution of free time within society at large, but also the wildly divergent reactions that are encountered when somebody like me asserts themselves vs the vile reactions that many people seem to feel are "justified" by the mere fact of someone daring to voice an opinion online.
Leslie Hawthorn's recent OSCON keynote is a short, accessible, introduction to the notion of learning to see defaults that work in your favour, rather than assuming that your own experience is typical of everyone.
In particular, if you're ever tempted to utter phrases like, "I don't see colour" or "I don't see gender", then my immediate question is: "If you don't see them, how are you ever going to notice if they, coincidentally I'm sure, happen to be always be the same as yours?"
Structural inequality really needs to be at the core of any notion of economic efficiency. The notion of "by the 1% for the 1%" applies to the market as much as it does to government: if a small, relatively homogeneous, group of people have control of excess amounts of capital due to structural inequality, then that market is not free. The interests of that wealthy minority will be given undue priority relative to the economic interests of the community at large.
Relying on the enlightened foresight of the elite to look after the interests of the community as a whole is foolish, because history has shown time and time again that it doesn't work. The elite almost inevitably attempt to secure their personal power at the expense of the community, and the system ultimately collapses in chaos (at least for a while).
The framers of the US constitution got a lot right, but one of the things they got wrong was their focus on political power and influence. They missed the fact that concentrations of economic power, including control over the means of communication are just as dangerous as concentrations of political, and potentially more so, since corporations aren't built with the checks and balances we often aim to include in the design of our governments.
These aren't new ideas - capitalism vs socialism has been around for a long time. Another short video that captures fundamental aspects of my thinking is this one, which points out that, for jobs where creativity is a primary consideration, once people are being paid enough that money is no longer their primary concern, then autonomy, master and purpose take over as key motivating factors.
And this is where my economic thinking gets hard to summarise using the default terms, because my perspective is socialist until we get people to that point of receiving "enough money for money to no longer be the primary concern", and then capitalist beyond that point, as when we reach that point, I think we're in a position where enough of the preconditions have been met for market forces to work tolerably well.
In "pie in the sky" terms, basic income seems like a potential long term answer. By decoupling meeting survival needs from gainful employment, it puts workers in a far stronger negotiating position with management, and hence has the potential to bring employment arrangements closer to the "voluntary exchange of goods and services for mutual benefit" ideal. Employers would no longer be getting an "I need this job to survive" discount, and hence would be forced to compensate workers based on the true level of supply of people interested in doing the work, rather than being able to rely on "any job is better than no job".
Near term, though, we still have to deal with the fact that a lot of power is concentrated in corporations, and most of those corporations are run as autocracies.
This is a problem, but it's also an opportunity: if you can convince those companies that it is in their economic interests to seriously address social problems, then you don't need to appeal to anyone's better nature to make progress, you can appeal to their cynicism and selfishness instead.
Different people will have different levels of tolerance for this kind of realpolitik type thinking. My own tolerance levels for it are quite high, but I can certainly appreciate why nicer human beings than I am would find it distasteful.
It helps that it doesn't involve making anything up - it's just a matter of framing the truth in a way that emphasises short term economic benefits rather than appealing to high minded ideals. While I do call myself an idealist, I qualify that with the word "cynical" advisedly. I know how ignorant and foolish I am, and the kinds of decisions I have to make based on manifestly inadequate data, yet the feedback I have received over the years has clearly indicated that I'm actually pretty good at what I do. It seems this kind of "Why are people listening to me?" experience is far from being an isolated one.
I'm currently skeptical of the "basic income" movement getting anywhere in the near term, since Australia not only just elected a government that celebrated repealing a carbon tax that was working quite well, but also has strong bipartisan support for spying on the whole world (including our own citizens), treating asylum seekers with xenophobic brutality, and blaming the poor for their problems rather than seeing the existence of poverty in a wealthy nation as an indicator of defects in the design of the economic system.
So, yeah, "faith in humanity" meter currently sitting at "we're probably doomed".
I'm not a nihilist though, so I look for ways to at least nudge things towards "not doomed" that play to my own strengths. The most basic of those is by writing open source software, and by working for a software vendor that releases all of its products as open source.
What folks often miss with the open source software development model is that it is designed to enable "permissionless innovation" anywhere on the planet where you can get a half-decent internet connection, and even in some places where you can't. While there are (significant) language barriers, most of the software that powers the internet (and more besides) is not locked up in proprietary licensing. This means that countries that are considered too poor for the software giants to bother with don't have to wait - they can get started, today, doing their own thing, with software that they can tailor to their own purposes.
I really have no idea what folks in African countries, or India, or China, or Brazil, or even many folks right here in Brisbane, actually need out of their software (although I assume being able to name things in their own language is helpful, since I definitely like that feature myself). Trying to write it for them would be at best presumptuous, and at worst repeating colonialist mistakes of the past.
But I can at least make the stuff I work on freely available, and try to drive down the barriers to adoption, so they can start from where we already are today, and create solutions to their own problems, rather than having to start from scratch.
Empowering more and more people to become better and better at solving their own problems is how we change the world, not figuring out how to save a wealthy white guy like me five more minutes out of his already leisure filled day :P
At the same time, though, the way we run companies (especially the big ones) is typically terrible. The autocratic management model most large companies employ in pursuit of the illusive feeling of being "in control" flies in the face of everything we know about how to get things done efficiently and effectively.
The most fascinating part about working at Red Hat is the fact that on one side of us we have this "the only barriers to entry are time, interest and ability to find your niche" free-for-all (albeit one that needs to address its serious structural inequality issues), while on the sales and marketing side, we're playing in the same business oriented enterprise market as the rest of the large software vendors.
Nobody else has ever tried something like this on this scale before. Unlike many open source vendors, we deliberately have the project/product split so we can keep the company's interests from directly controlling the open source projects (there's obviously some impact, but "Red Hat needs it" isn't a reason, it's motivation for us to figure out why the change is also in the interests of the project). The community-focused R&D side of things is certainly more chaotic and less polished than the business-focused product side. But the fact remains that our subscribers are helping to fund the creation of large amounts of software that is then made freely available to anyone in the world, whether they're our customer or not.
This "empowerment is the way you change the world" perspective is also one of the reasons I'm adamant about knocking down barriers to entry for the Python Software Foundation. Due to the origins of both it and the open source movement in general, the organisation has historically been very North America and Europe centric. Despite the close relationships between the AUSCANZUKUS quintet, just the time zone difference is enough to make that abundantly clear - under the old closed membership model, growing the PSF membership in Australia was incredibly difficult, let alone in countries where English wasn't the primary spoken language.
We're at least making progress on that front though. The board is up to four countries being represented (USA, Australia, Germany, India), albeit with the US still holding the majority of positions. We've also made the switch to an open membership model (although the associated liberalisation of the voting structure is a work in progress).
I honestly don't know what the end result of opening up the PSF organisational structure is going to be, but my hope is that it will allow it to grow into a truly global organisation. Regardless of what happens, though, I expect it's going to be an interesting journey
One other point on the PSF - it was also incredibly important to get the Code of Conduct in place before the membership could be opened up. As an umbrella organisation it can't be anywhere near as detailed as the CoC for an in-person event like PyCon, but the top level CoC provides institutional backing for enforcement of personal and group boundaries in PSF related communications channels and groups.
Via Steve K. Labnik, an excellent article on the many reasons to be sceptical about capitalists' ability to actually change their behaviour in ways that will genuinely constrain their own power and influence.
This Reddit thread has some relevant comments that relate to the fact that the significant risks of leaving a job break the most critical feedback loop that could have a real impact on management quality. Too many managers keep their staff because any job is better than no job, not because it's an enjoyable way to spend their time.
I've been lucky in that the one time I had a truly bad boss I was unable to avoid dealing with, I was able to quit cold, rather than finding another position to go to. I wasn't the only one who was having problems with that individual, though, so the end result was that he left rather than me, and we were able to start improving the work environment for everyone.
An interesting article on some of the possible challenges of basic income in the presence of oligopoly control of essential goods and services: http://www.ianwelsh.net/the-problem-with-basic-income/