From time to time I have been told that I ramble on about the two opposing modes of organization: hierarchy and rhizome. One of the most common critiques I hear is that hierarchy isn't really so bad--after all, it exists in nature. Quite true, both hierarchy an rhizome DO exist in nature, an will continue to be important parts of life on Earth. The trouble with hierarchy is that it is presently grossly overrepresented. The organizational balance is far out of whack--more than eliminate hierarchy just for its own sake, we need to work to restore a dynamic balance between hierarchy and rhizome, between centralized and distributed organization. The problem with doing that is the institutionalized subsidy that civilization uses to underwrite its hierarchal foundations.
Rob Hopkins at Transition Culture has an outstanding post today entitled "Making Power-Down Electable: Who Will Vote for the Promise of Less?" This cuts right to the heart of the matter: there is no realistic alternative to perpetual growth, increase, and intensification of our hierarchal structures unless the subsidies that favor such a mode of organization are removed (as discussed in A Theory of Power, Chapter 7). If politicians are elected on the basis of promising the most to the voter, then who will vote for someone who campaigns for "less growth, but balance!"?? If corporations are legally required to maximize shareholder return, then when will they ever say "sure, we could do less environmental damage and undertake sustainable operations, but we will have to reduce our growth targets"?? If central bank monetary policy has an "inflation target" of about 3-4%, then who can possibly afford to invest in a static, sustainable solution?? If your money and assets aren't appreciating by MORE than 3-4%, then you're falling behind. Can't have that. If the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles don't require that all future costs of present actions are accounted for, then when will either government or corporations ever be concerned with the future impact of massive fossil fuel use or pollution? If the defense-budget subsidy artificially lowers the cost of producing and transporting oil and gas around the world, when will unsubsidized, renewable energy sources ever be competitive??
Decentralized, rhizomatic solutions ARE competitive if we would just stop subsidizing hierarchy. This would allow a return to the natural balance between hierarchy and rhizome that exists in nature. This doesn't get around the more basic problem of "who will vote for the promise of less." Unfortunately, the solution to this problem is more complicated, and requires that we frame the problem within the bounds of the human time-horizon (as discussed in A Theory of Power, Chapter 4). If the people can be convinced of the unsustainability of our current system, and that the impact of this unsustainability will lead to crisis within a time frame that matters to humans, then people will take action. There is a long record of humanity electing to sacrifice now for a better future, whether it is for the protection of our children, for a promised eternity in heaven, or just for the feeling of winning a grueling race. But in order for people to elect a present sacrifice, the problem must be suitably framed within our ontogeny.
Some recommendations for removing subsidies to hierarchy, implementable once the problem has been framed within the necessary time-horizon:
1. Central banks should have 0% inflation targets. Better yet, we should do away with central banks and have only commodity-backed currencies, because central banks, almost by definition, create inflation and debt. Otherwise we are institutionalizing a demand for perpetual growth. This alone will ripple powerfully through the financial markets, affecting everything from government borrowing to interest rates.
2. Take a suggestion from Austrian Economics and impose cost at the point of creation. This is the single most flagrant point of subsidy to hierarchy in modern economies. Want to buy some gas? Well, it now costs $5/gallon because we included the $300 billion a year the DoD spend to protect supply lines. Still want to buy gas? Now it costs $10/gallon because we also assess all future pollution-related costs at the pump (and put the money in a trust to improve and repair that damage). If you're really still in line at the pump, then the price is now up to $15/gallon because the costs of road construction, maintenance, and policing are now included (rather than being subsidized by payments out of income taxes). At $15/gallon--i.e. without a subsidy to driving--suddenly localization, condensed zoning, mass transportation, etc. would all be viable in the marketplace. That's a key point, because it's an uphill battle to convince people to spend more "because it's the right thing to do." But without the pervasive subsidies to wasteful, hierarchal systems, it would make the most market sense to adopt localized, sustainable solutions--and that is exactly the point that we must reach if we are to turn this ship around.
Is any of this actually realistic, or is it just pie-in-the-sky dreaming? Well, it certainly threatens many (most?) vested interests in our society. However, if the public is actually armed with this information, with an understanding of how our system works and why it will soon fail, then people may actually demand change. That part--awakening the masses--is certainly a challenge, but history has shown over and over that it can be done. As V so aptly pointed out, people shouldn't be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people...