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A different kind of rebalancing


Have you lent money with no strings (like Wonga-esque interest rates, Downtown style personal lackey duties etc) attached to someone outside of your family since Lehman went pop? Have you bartered instead of bought; paid in something other than legal tender; grown you own vegetables; given your time to others for free?

Sociologist Manuel Castells, in his project Aftermath, has been mapping these post crash behavioural shifts with the type of brio you would associate with a guy who was talking about nodes and networks long before I was out of short trousers. The project has been exploring how significant numbers of people are dropping off the mainstream of capitalism as-we-know-it and forging their own way ahead using network technologies and thinking, to create alternatives to the not-fit-for-purpose status quo. The work is also exploring how this sharing and networking is rewiring their thinking to make them reflect a bit more on who they are, what they want and how they are going to get it.

Retreat, rekindle, refound

Why are peoples behaviours changing?

a) Because the system sucks. It no longer supports them and cannot provide them with the prosperity they are looking for and b), they can use network technologies to help them organise and come up with a workaround that functions for them.

In advanced economies, where markets and institutions have evolved to take the place of, or correct for, the need for old-school survival strategies, these new network tools make it easy to rekindle and refound these skills for the 21st century, with people clustering around projects and ideas and then jetting off to cluster around someone or something else. And in so doing, they can eschew the cannibalistic capitalism that is mercilessly chowing down on anything and anyone in its path.

Castells and his team suggest that this type of ad-hoc life hackery is where we are all moving towards whether we like it or not. And that the crisis, which was in part caused by these newly available network technologies – think high frequency, robo-slicing and dicing hegdies – has, for some, accelerated the retreat.

So far so good, but…

But this step back from a type capitalism and its political and social struts that no longer delivers, towards a new, networked version needs help from you and me if we want it to make it to the next level.. Let me try and briefly explain:

These network technologies have been a great help in getting us together. It’s not that this ‘social’ omnipresence doesn’t have its own set of alienation issues, but it’s fair to say that if we want to, we don’t have to be bowling alone 4 eva anymore. At the same time, these tools, alongside the crisis, have tapped into our innate feelings as human beings – not to screw each other over; to love one another; to connect, converse and collaborate.

So far so good. These two strands combine to help us shortcut the system that is so awesomely failing us. And so, while not perfect, we hack our way forwards. And as we do this, we are seeding a new type of economy that works for us and that seems light years away from the vampyric clutches of what came before. The underdog is sort of winning and it feels good.

But here is the thing, this isn’t just about corporate life sentence vs. co-working, car payments vs car sharing, investment vs. time banking. Where we are at with this crisis (happening in advanced economies) – on things like unemployment, indebtedness and inequality means that it is not exactly a fair fight between acephalous, anti-hierarchical and fluid vs necrotic, plutocratic and set-in-aspic. Nor, I think, can say that this will be enough to propel us into a newer version of prosperity and recast all the systems that are so badly malfunctioning.

Harnessing this energy to truly forge a new economy is going to require more effort from us. Sure, it may well be possible to just cultivate our own gardens for a bit. But at some point the bigger job of institutional reimagination, a refounding of capitalism along more eudaimonic lines, and a need to create, or, dare I say, curate, inclusive global responses to hulking global challenges will have to be tackled.

Rebalancing, but not as you think

What’s more -in case we haven’t noticed – claims on a decent, dignified, meaningful life are growing. The world is getting more crowded, resources are becoming a more scarce, cultures and people are intermingling like never before. And despite the fact that the type of capitalism that blew us up is apparently thriving (albeit with a statist twist) in the rest of the world…for now, it’s own foundations are precarious, it’s institutional deficits are even greater than our own and its problems are on a scale we cant quite comprehend. In fact, it is not hard to imagine that that version – where networks and network technologies are having just as much, if not more, of an effect – will soon be opted out of on a scale that will really be the moment for introspection, as the prosperity promised will become undeliverable.

So where do we need to focus our attention? Where is the edge we need to be looking out for? Well, in my mind what is interesting is that at, a global level, while on one side there is a retreat taking place, on the other, there is a sort of shift away from the types of community and network survival tactics which for so long were relied upon in place of an absent state and market. For me this isn’t such a divergent story as it is often represented. Sure, the world is rebalancing on new axes, but they aren’t the ones that are draped in the humdrum binary logic of business and politics that wants us to shop ’til we drop for life.

Actually it is possible to see a type of rebalancing going on that is based on more universal, human ideas of love, potential and equality. And right now both North and South inhabit this space – albeit coming at it from different perspectives. Some are leaving these tools and traits behind, others are embracing them anew. And in the middle there is also all this new network behaviour and collaborative tools the likes of which we have never had access to before that are sparking the kind of connection and intermingling that brings on more reflection about who we are, what do we want and how do we want to get it.

I’d wager that this space is where the good stuff will happen. And I would also venture that the North’s sickly hyperconsumption that may be all about ‘money, jewels and tight abdominals’ is not the goal for most of the world who are finally entering the global marketplace, being listening to as citizens for the first time and at last have a chance to give their children a decent future.

Recasting a universal framework

For me this civic zone/edge is where a real, enduring type of consensus that is global, speaks to national, regional and local contexts can be forged that is a world away from the inert, country club summitry caravans that wheel across the planet, their futile contrails shrugging their shoulders as they roll on to the next hangar-like facility. It is a nimble, creative space where the embedded contradictions and noxious (and ultimately fatal) bi-products of a certain type capitalism can be readily observed and constructively picked apart by real human beings. It is also a place where the creative, entrepreneurial, civic and personal responses, hacks and solutions – either new or generations old – can be brought to the table, shared and tinkered with. It is where a rebalancing world can co-exist and realise that we aren’t actually all out to do each other over.

And maybe because of this we can coalesce around a set of principles, found the new organisations that are going to take on the big global challenges and create the types of organisations, products and services that offer a chance to build a new type of prosperity that is made to last.

As Castells remarked during his interview for the BBC’s Analysis programme, almost jumping out of his chair as he said it: ‘economy is culture!’. We make it everyday. And if we create it, we can also use these wonderful network technologies and this moment of reflection to help build the norms, frameworks and foundations that underpin it. I’m not saying this is easy, nor that it isn’t a generational challenge. But it is right in front of us. We have all we need at our disposal and the time is ripe. Do we want to have a go at making it happen?

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