Episode #71 Swimming in a New Sea: creating a different world of money with Jonathan Dawson of Schumacher College
Imagine a world where money works differently – where there’s enough for everyone’s needs, not their greed and where we work together for a life we all want. In this week’s podcast, Jonathan Dawson, head of the Regenerative Economics Masters program at Schumacher college explores how.
Jonathan is a sustainability educator and a former President of the Global Ecovillage Network. He has around 20 years experience as a researcher, author, consultant and project manager in the field of small enterprise development in Africa and South Asia and before joining the College he was a long-term resident at the Findhorn ecovillage.
Jonathan is the principal author of the Gaia Education sustainable economy curriculum www.gaiaeducation.org, drawn from best practice within ecovillages worldwide, that has been endorsed by UNITAR and adopted by UNESCO as a valuable contribution to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. He teaches this curriculum at universities, ecovillages and community centres in Brazil, Spain and Scotland. He has also adopted the curriculum to virtual format and teaches it through the Open University of Catalunya in Barcelona.
In this week’s wide-ranging discussion, we explore the differences between the hard, mechanistic view of economics and the wider, more regenerative view that is based in moral philosophy. From there, we look at the ways we can change the stories we tell ourselves about value and worth and the ways we are moving forward in an ever-changing world.
Dawson J. Teaching Economics for the 21st Century, Resilience.org.Dawson J. Changing Stories: Using narrative to shift societal values, Resurgence (March, 2015)
Dawson J. A wave of disruption is sweeping in to challenge neoliberalism, Guardian, March 12, 2015
Kate Raworth: Doughnut Economics
Mariana Mazzucato: The Mission Economy
Tim Jackson: Post Growth
Kim Stanley Robinson: The Ministry for the Future (fiction)
Bill Gates: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster
Rupert Sheldrake (banned by TED)
Manda: My guest this week is a long time friend and mentor and one of the people for whom I have the highest respect. Jonathan Dawson leads, co-created, teaches, holds the space for the Masters in Regenerative Economics at Schumacher College. And if you’ve listened to this podcast before, you’ll know that I did that Masters back in 2016/17. And Jonathan was and is a revelation in terms of his capacity for emotional, mental, spiritual and energetic flexibility. He’s an economist, but as he will tell us, he’s also a storyteller. He’s an extraordinary educator with a capacity for creating a learning space that gives agency to everyone in the classroom that is unmatched in my previous experience. He has an incredibly lively, enquiring mind. And the conversation we just had ranged far more widely than I had expected it to. But then I should have expected it to range that widely and reach places that I found really inspiring. And I hope you do, too. So people of the podcast, please welcome Jonathan Dawson. So, Jonathan Dawson, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. It is such a delight to have you on. I’ve been planning this since before we started way back in 2019. So thank you for being here.
Jonathan: Well do you know, I just want to return the compliment by saying that that I often think back to your interview for this course that’s now called Regenerative Economics Master’s programme. It used to be called Economics for Transition. And in your interview, when asked why would a former vet who is into shamanic studies want to study economics? And you said two things. One, Gods told me to, and secondly, I want to write a script for the revolution.
Manda: Did I say that? There we go. And now we’ve written it. We just need the money. Yes. We just need a billionaire or two to fund it. But I am now, apparently one degree of separation away from Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. So who knows? They may, those degrees may not happen, but it’s always worth a try. So we’re here, and we really want to talk about how we do write the script for the revolution, how we change things. But before we leap into that, could we have a really edited highlights of how you came to be the person who is running Regenerative Economics masters at Schumacher, and within that, the understanding that we need to change the frame?
Jonathan: Yep, interesting. So I think maybe a good way in here is to say that for much of my working life, when people have referred to me as an economist, I have tended to look over my shoulder and wonder who they were speaking about. The cap has never really fitted, at least in terms of conventional market based economics, mathematics. I think I’ve always been at least as interested in culture, particularly theatre, language, story as in the rules of economics. And the meeting point between them, like I think it is such a point of power is where the arts meet political economy. And so I think I’ve always found that, maybe coming from an Irish background would have done no harm. But definitely when I was designing, co-designing the economics master’s programme here at the college, it felt like the question of narratives, the conceptual sea in which we swim, we’re largely aware of the power of language to frame in ways, subversive ways that we’re generally not even conscious of, narratives that we’re surrounded by, that deeply condition our condition our thinking. And I’ve always felt that insofar as we’re involved in micro level, really important community based stuff there, as long as we’re not challenging those narratives we’re swimming upstream. So my interest is turning the narrative around so that we’re swimming with the tide, with the current rather against continuing.
Manda: Yes. So before we look into how we can change the narrative, where do you think the current conceptual sea in which we swim, what are its baselines, its skeleton, its structure? What is it that we all are so imbued with that we don’t challenge it
Jonathan: I think there’s two layers. The short term layer is neoliberal capitalism and the very clever association of free markets, like the embodied metaphor of freedom. So even though we know from a study of how markets work that there is no such thing as a free market, certainly not at the moment, but nonetheless, the use of that language makes it a very difficult concept to challenge. And concepts like growth and development, growth being another embodied metaphor that we know from many people like George Lakoff and many others, Tom Crompton, others who have worked on this programme, that it’s really difficult to challenge an embodied metaphor. So growth is a universally good thing. So anyway, at the first national level, is capitalism. At a deeper level is what people like Thomas Berry and more recently, Charles Eisenstein have described as separation. So really, the heritage going all the way back to Plato and beyond, certainly through the Judeo-Christian lineage of the profound separation of humans, of subject from object, of humans and the rest of the natural world, of the stories that end up that we in our culture find ourselves alone and miserable in a dead universe. It’s the story and it’s quite unlike the stories that most civilisations have held before us.
Manda: Yes, I was thinking also partly because of something that our mutual friend Della Duncan posted recently. She’s working with Fritjof Capra, but she did a podcast about work and about the myth of the utility of work. And I was thinking about that, that within neoliberal capitalism, this concept that everybody has to work to make money, but that we don’t actually want to work. So we have to have the carrot and the stick, the characters, the money. But the stick is the threat of impoverishment or homelessness or all of those things. And yet there is also within our culture, within this myth of personal freedom, everyone is sold the story that they can be the best of themselves, grow up to do what it is that they want to do and that, in fact, we should be seeking the things that make our hearts explode and that enable us to flourish in the world. And the people who believe the system seem to be able to hold at the same time, the concept that they and their friends have a right to do the work that enlivens them and gives them great satisfaction while everybody else is doing work that they hate.
And I would really dearly like to sit somebody down who holds this and see how they managed to hold that cognitive dissonance in their heads. So because everybody listening isn’t necessarily an economist, can we unpack a little bit further what it is about neoliberal capitalism that makes it so compelling, that has made it function to the point that it has, and perhaps have a look at also where the deep holes are? Because I had a conversation recently with a friend who I respect highly, who has made more money probably than anybody else I know out of the system, who genuinely says yes, but you may not like capitalism, but most of the people in the world have now been lifted out of poverty and therefore it’s good. And I end up not challenging that because the assumptions underlying it are so many and so profoundly wrong to me that I don’t know where to start without getting really cross. So can we begin to unpack that a little bit?
Jonathan: Yes. Yes. So the neo liberal revolution really, I mean, it was being planned through from really from the Second World War. We didn’t really find a place in government policy until the late 1970s. And the core assumption is that wealth is generated by the market. So the question of neo liberalism is a particularly virulent form of capitalism, maybe just in parenthesis, I can say at the moment that what we’re trying to do at the moment is a very exciting moment for many of the old stories are… Thomas Berry was the first one to say that we live in a moment between stories, and in this period, what we want to develop is intelligent, critical thinking and words like capitalism and communism, I almost never use them. Because as soon as you use them, they trigger associations in the mind of the listener, which means in most cases either yes, I’m on that side or the other side of the baddies and the commentor or the capitalists. And really what is happening at the moment is so much more interesting than the debate that dominated the 20th century, which is that between should we have more status, should we have more market, is socialist or capitalist? In terms of like specifically what is distinctive about neoliberalism? Its distinctiveness is a radical assertion that value is generated by the markets, and that the role of the state should be limited to the degree possible, and that really the state should not be doing much more than correcting what economists call market failures.
Manda: And so the state is recognised by neo liberals as having a legitimate role in intervening to correct that. But it’s a fundamental rule, and this is very much playing on, I’m going to remember Reagan’s phrase, something like the nine most dangerous words in the English language are Hello, I’m from the government. I’m here to help. And so that’s the that’s the assertion, is value is generated by the market and the value creators, in other words, the Richard Bransons and Jeff Bezos of this world, are entitled to whatever recompense comes their way. And the state should not intervene to redistribute, because they are the wealth creators. Now, enter stage left the wonderful Mariano Mazzucato, who’s written a number of books. I’ve recently read her Mission Economy, but I think it’s the third or fourth of her books that I’ve read. Well, she, not from an ideological position, but simply looking empirically at the story of capitalism in the 20th century has revealed, has made clear, has retold the story that the role of the state has been core, has been central. And she does this lovely little vignettes. So she takes apart a smartphone, and looks at all of the different elements and components that go to make up a smartphone, and all of them generated by state funded research. A lot of it around the Moon Mission Project. And looking again, the example of vaccines at the moment, free market promoters are looking at vaccines and using it as an example of the merits, the efficiency, the potential scale up of the markets.
Jonathan: And Mazzucato, you know, is one of a number who’s looking at the actual record and noticing that the private sector is really strong at doing research funding research at the end of the process. So the early stages of the process are hit and miss. You never really quite know which is going to be the the horse you need to back. There’s a lot of heavy duty research that goes in. And then once that work has been done, the corporations come in and issue patents, and set up substantial revenue chains for wealth that has been generated by the public through the state. The profits are privatised. I mean, I think it’s another thing we’re getting from the response to the pandemic is the recognition that the real wealth creators and the essential workers are not those who we have so far identified as such and think that the real essential workers are the ones that are paid at least. So I think that what we’re getting here is there is a nexus of different understandings and narratives that are challenging the core narrative of who are the wealth creators. I think this is, I think we’re surrounded at the moment by tipping points waiting to be activated. This is socio cultural narrative level tipping points waiting to be activated. I think this is a critical one, is who are the wealth creators? And really, Mariano Mazzucato’s work is exemplary.
Manda: Who are the wealth creators in our current culture and what is the cost of that? Because it seems to me that we could challenge that narrative and point out that we really need nurses, and paying the one percent is risible while you’re paying 32 billion to your friends to recycle bin bags as PPE. I think what’s become so obvious with the current administration is that kind of kleptocratic establishment class that’s very, very good at siphoning public money into its own hands. Even if we challenge that, and go OK, we need to do what it seems like Joe Biden might be trying to do and create, you know, a multibillion pound care sector where people actually get paid proper money for caring for people. That doesn’t change the underlying catastrophe of our time, which is that climate change is a market failure. I love that. I love the concept of that. We made a bit of a mistake, guys, but we’re going to become extinct. Don’t worry. We’ll just tweak.
Jonathan: It’s a tweak! We’ll just tweak a little bit!
Manda: Because the whole principle of the environmental impact, something I think George Monbiot wrote over the weekend, that there’s the new big Netflix sea story, the name of which currently escapes me, and he said that the people getting really cross over that were the same ones who were publishing papers about underutilised fishing areas about 10 years ago, meaning places that hadn’t actually been fished to extinction.
Jonathan: I know. And the powerful language to totally frame the thinking.
Manda: And you know, we are now within a decade of having sterilise seas, because up until now it’s been the place where we dumped all the crap, and and we could infinitely fish from it. And that’s more than just a neoliberal concept, it seems to me. Even if we were still within some other kind of financial construct, that goes back to what you’re talking about as the separation.
Jonathan: Well, I think that that’s just exactly what I was thinking, was that this is the point at which we move beyond the tribal battles within socialism, capitalism, from the 19th century onwards, we look back to see that really got teeth in the post-Enlightenment period. I mean, Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’, hating of human beings as being outside of the family of life with the mandate, and again, this goes all the way back to the Judeo-Christian roots of stewardship and control and domination over the other than human world. The core question here being, what is wealth? So before we look at who are the wealth creators, what is wealth? The association of wealth to what passes through the market is so deeply ingrained, so successfully languaged, that really our prime ministers and ministers of finance need to stand up once a year and describe the percentage, or they used to, the percentage by which GDP has grown, they longer to do that! But they used to, and really didn’t need to say anything more because the work had already been done at the narrative level. GDP is going up. Good thing. We’re going in the right direction. Now over the years, there have been numerous critiques of this position.
So the idea that wealth is measured in monetary terms, but what passes through the market on the grounds that there are many things that pass through the market that do not generate value. So we’re looking at defence spend: defence, the very word defence, arms spending, it’s not defence, it’s assault. And then the Bobby Kennedy speech of of 68, I think it was, where he says, you know, it counts the napalm, it counts the the destruction of our highways. And he finishes by saying it counts everything except that which makes worth life worth living. And I think what we’re seeing at the moment, and this is I mean, it feels a little callous to speak of the pandemic as opportunity, but nonetheless, we need to be looking for silver linings, and the silver lining here being that the potential to generate profits in a context where there is massive disruption, both from probably a rolling set of of pandemics coming in, to climate change, that we simply need an expanded state playing a greater driving, guiding role in a context in which wealth will be health. And could it be that we will get to this place not as a result of winning ideological battles, but simply because there is no choice?
Manda: We think there’s no choice. I look at Rishi Sunak or the American right, and I’m not sure they would agree with that.
Jonathan: Well, let’s look at them. This is really interesting, because the current government in the U.K., which is probably the most right wing we’ve ever had, are enacting policies that were Jeremy Corbyn to be enacting, which he would be if he were prime minister, he would be slated, totally. So this very right wing government is intervening both in climate change and in, or rather addressing the impacts of climate change and hopefully being shamed as the host for the next COP in really significant action, but definitely intervening heavily in softening the blow to the economy generated by the pandemic. It’s reached these positions not as a result of any ideological persuasion, but because it hasn’t had a choice.
Manda: What worries me about this is that it’s doing it within the same old narrative. So Rishi Sunak is already laying the ground for the austerity that will have to come to pay for the fact that everybody had some free money last year, without any acknowledgement that the free money was basically numbers on a spreadsheet, and he does not have to take in tax to balance it out. We had Richard Murphy on the podcast a few weeks ago explaining modern monetary theory. So we don’t need to go into that in great detail. But they’re not changing their narrative. They are they are warning everybody already that we will have to pay for this, which I assume means we sell off the NHS to our friends in America. And at the same time, they are becoming socially more repressive, you’re right, than any government we have ever seen or, you know, pretty much anywhere outside of totalitarian states. And I’m kind of interested that you think that they’re really acting on climate change, because I’m watching them thinking, you guys are living in a fantasy land. So I’m reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. And one of the early statistics is 500 billion tonnes of CO2 burned, or CO2 equivalents. If we go over that, we are in absolutely irreversible climate change, like four to eight degrees by the end of the century, which is not compatible with any kind of life at all. Not even the super rich people in Silicon Valley, you know, building themselves bunkers are trying to moonshot to Mars. And we are currently burning 40 billion tonnes a year. So that’s eight years to change the ship, the direction of how we do business, and how we work, and how many Trident missiles we built to prove that our Prime Minister has a bigger dick than anybody else, or whatever it is he’s trying to prove.
Jonathan: Manda, you’re naughty!
Manda: What else is he doing it for? I mean, honestly, is this, I’ve seen the numbers, and they think we’re going to have to defend our tiny little island against the millions who will be displaced? Really? With with nuclear missiles? Are you kidding me? Sorry… so what are you saying that gives you hope that they’re actually acting? Because it feels like you’re seeing a kind of Nixon in China moment that I’m not.
Jonathan: Yeah. So I’m really not.
Jonathan: Maybe a little bit of background here is that the master’s programme we launched here a decade ago was called Economics for Transition. And from this year, it’s called Regenerative Economics. And we didn’t change the title because I lost hope in the transition. Like certainly 10 years ago when we started the programme, when I looked in the new economics toolkit, I saw grounds for optimism that we could have a transitional soft landing transition. And fundamentally, I no longer believe that. Impossible. So do I see narratives changing, policies like changing structures, behaviours changing quickly enough to enable us to make the kind of changes that we need to keep that where the scientists tell us we need to keep temperatures down below 1.5 or even 2 degrees? I mean, honestly, I can’t look myself in the mirror and and say that I truly believe that to be true. Richard Heinberg wrote a piece recently where he said the new avenue that we need to put on our map is what he calls ‘brace for impact’. And I think we’re in the territory. However, that said, we are meaning-making species. And it seems to me that much of the mental illness and suicide and anti-depressants and drugs in our society result from the cognitive dissonance between the dominant stories that we’re inhabiting, and the reality that we actually sense around us. We’re not able to take in the data, the happenings of the world in which we are embedded, and make a tally, increasingly with the dominant stories of our moment.
One of the manifestations of that is that my feeling is that in most cases, young people no longer believe they can change anything. They no longer believe they have agency. There’s a deep lack of meaning in a way that was not true for my generation. The first half of my career was in in West Africa. And I mean, really, I believed that actually we were turning the ship around, and we were doing great things. And some of the things we were doing were not bad at all. I used to work with intermediate technology development, which were associated with the organisation that you created. And much of the work we were doing was inspiring. In many of the first generation of post independence African leaders were inspired, inspiring people who were really surfing an ideological wave. And this is the Non-Aligned Movement, people like Kwame Nkrumah, and Patrice Lumumba, a whole generation of them, really. Whereas today, I think what I I’m seeing is a profound sense of alienation from the world of work, of alienation from having a societal story of what we’re actually doing, and how that may contribute to making society a better place. Like there’s lots of teeming individual initiatives. But I think the dominant mode is lethargy, alienation and depression.
Manda: And are you seeing that more in the students now?
Jonathan: Not in our students. Our students were fortunate that really we have a self-selecting group. What gives me meaning is this story that actually working at the narrative level and finding a way of framing, understanding, this moment in history in a way that gives energy and purpose and dynamism to the generations to come, is the work that I think I find myself doing.
Manda: Ok, that’s sounding good. Energy with a purpose and dynamism to the generations to come.
Jonathan: Maybe I can just add one little thing to that, is I saw.. another plug for Mariano Muzzacato’s Mission Economy. She’s really painting in a very tangible sense, and she’s working directly with governments in Europe and the U.S. and the U.K. and elsewhere, her own mission is to generate the same sense of mission that the US had through the 1960s to get someone on the moon. So the mobilising the public imagination and genius and power for the collective good, but it needs to be articulated, needs to be mobilised around particular missions. And I think the fact that she is not just talking about the desirability, but is actually describing her work in the chambers of power, I find very powerful.
Manda: Yeah. And that narrative is being picked up by the American administration. Joe Biden has already spoken about that sense of a moonshot with respect to the vaccine. But if he can do it with the vaccine, then, yes, I think he gets climate change in ways that I didn’t realise he did when I was thinking…
Jonathan: He’s surprising me too.
Manda: Yeah, good. So although, he has to get stuff through a Senate that lives in the wrong generation. But anyway, let’s not get hooked up on that. How then, in your view and having just spent a whole module working with some of the brightest students we can get, what is the new narrative that we need to bring out, and how can we get it beyond our echo chamber?
Jonathan: So the first part is what are the new narratives? I’m a little bit resistant to the question, and that is because a really important element, a really important foundation stone of the course that I teach, that you have done, is complexity theory.
Manda: Ok, yes.
Jonathan: It’s the idea of emergence and the idea that, you know, we can have intelligent guesses, but fundamentally with future we can read patterns, but we certainly can’t predict. And I’m a 60 plus year old, and I’m not going to… really, this is not an avoidance of the question. It’s it’s a real reluctance to frame and define a story that can’t be conceptualised in the abstract, but that must be lived by those, by future generations. I’m going to take us back to Africa at the minute again, in the late 70s, early 80s, when I started working there, that there was a very strong sense of purpose and mobilisation, and like a generation had its mission, which was the post-colonial rebuilding of the colonies. Now, for various reasons, not least because of the intervention of European and American powers decapitated the leadership of many of these movements, and then the imposition of structural adjustment over a couple of decades, which effectively my M. Phil dissertation was on the theme of ‘is there a distinctly African root of industrialisation that is distinctive, that builds on the cultural roots of Africa?’ And, you know, when I wrote it, the answer was a definite yes. But by the time neo liberal revolution coming to Africa and simply forcing them to, in exchange for financing for debts to open their economy in such a way, they couldn’t possibly compete against the global players.
Manda: Which was the point, I’m sure. But that sense of purpose and mobilisation, because I absolutely hear you about complexity, that’s a foundation stone of Accidental Gods. But I think still there are underlying concepts, underlying belief systems, underlying realities that our generation can begin to shift given, given that we are the inheritors of everything that went before. We’ve done really well. You and I both went to college at a time when it was free. All of those things. We can find some threads of things that we can believe in, that we can begin to live, that then those will ripple out and emerge in the ways that they emerge. Yes?
Jonathan: Yes, yes, indeed. Indeed. And I’m thinking of Wangari Maathai, formidable, now deceased, but formidable Kenyan woman who created the Green Belt movement. She and her fellow peasants across Kenya and now internationally, planting millions of trees. And so, like, she she came to me. She wanted to speak. And I simply gave voice to her. Are you aware of the, you will be aware, I’m sure, of the famous Milton Friedman quote. Again, he is one of the leading figures in terms of the development of neoliberalism. And the quote being something like, ‘crises will roll in. And when they roll in, governments will cast around looking for policies, new policies to implement.’ At the moment it’s to make sure that the policies that we develop are the ones they reach for. Now, after a very strong sense, I don’t think I’ve ever really ever believed that we would reform our way incrementally towards a sustainable, just global economy. I think I’ve always had the… my theory of change has always been based on converging crises, and the opportunity that those crises will present. So, as I said before, it seems to me that the pandemic on the one hand, and climate change impacts in the other, are converging in such a way that there’s is a real question. Again, I want to bring in Tim Jackson here in his recent book, Post Growth, I think. Well really he’s making the case. And I find it very convincing that actually the core conditions upon which the profit-maximising machine of continual capital accumulation that is capitalism, the conditions on which it needs, that it needs in order to thrive, to even exist, are beginning to shrink. And consequently, as I said before, that actually governments are finding themselves enacting policies in response, particularly the pandemic that are totally at odds with their ideological position in terms of free markets, because they don’t really have a choice. And so it seems to me that the popular mobilisation, as we saw, I think we may well look back on 2011 as being a critical year. We don’t see it at the moment. But I think that the people, risings of 2011, I mean, starting with the Occupy movement, began spreading through the Arab Spring, and massive demonstrations around the world that we may well look back, and this has been a year of critical importance, resetting the frame for what is possible, and opening a space for much more community driven, democratically driven, response to crisis.
Manda: Ok, because a lot of the generation who were really touched by Occupy are now a decade older, a decade or more into their own agency, I think. And it does seem really to be the people that I know who’ve been involved with that are definitely working at community levels, and are ignoring national politics because it’s not relevant to them.
Jonathan: Yes, so much more, far more interesting things happening at the municipal level. Manda, there’s one other thread I can weave in here that I think pulls together many of the threads we talked about so far. And that is so, again, looking at the level of narrative. So when I was working in West Africa during the neoliberal period, structural adjustment, economic liberalisation being imposed on the countries of the South, which hollowed out their own indigenous economies. It was a difficult period, because those in the World Bank and the other organisations that were driving the process, would point to the government and say, they’re patently inefficient. And I would look and we would look, and go, they’re right. But then when Thatcher with her TINA, there is no alternative, we didn’t really have an answer. It was like, God, we agree, that actually generally state institutions are not working, but there wasn’t really any other part of the map, other than market or state. Now, what happened over the last 20 years is a rediscovery of the Commons. So suddenly… by the Commons, I mean governance, not by the market, governance not by the state, but by community based, community driven enterprise or initiative.
This is a territory that Elinor Ostrom, Nobel prise winning economist, spent her life really working on demonstrating, providing a language for a third pole, independent of the state and independent of the market. And suddenly the map enlarges. If I can just link a little subplot to this, is that one of the reasons why it re-emerged was the emergence of the digital commons in the global North, that the whole area of the Internet enabling of multiple forms of mutual peer to peer organisation, independent of the state and the markets. And then the realisation that actually the principles you’re talking about with digital commons are very much mirrored by the more land-based indigenous commons in the global south. So what has happened is that over the last 20, 30 years, the map of possibilities has suddenly, dramatically expanded, primarily because we’ve rediscovered a language to describe what was there, but we weren’t really noticing it. I think this is really powerful,
Manda: And that’s why I thought you were going, talking about Africa, because I thought you were going to say yes, the World Bank thought all the governments were patently inefficient. But actually what they were doing was looking after people. And that’s much more important than getting a GDP of five percent or whatever it was that they were asking for. That their inefficiencies were not relevant, because what they were doing was supporting a community. Is it the case that that was so? Or was it just that there was corruption and that the systems of governance were not very good?
Jonathan: So actually, it was a whole other range of activities that usually goes under the name of import substitution. So recognising that if you were to break the dependency on the northern base, that the northern hemisphere, you would need to create infrastructure to enable the domestic production of goods to replace the imports. In most of these African countries, it’s not just Africa, but Latin America, for example, very strong movement as well. And south east Asia. The private sector wasn’t strong enough to be able to drive this process of import substitution. So the state came in and played a guiding role. And in many cases, partly because of corruption, and partly because of getting consultancy and other advice from the north that was designed to make them fail. John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman -strongly recommended. So partly because of corruption domestically, and partly because of cynical sabotage. A physical decapitation of the leadership, or providing advice to African countries that they should, for example, build production facilities way in excess of their local ability to provide for. And consequently, they were deeply inefficient, and we needed to find another way. But at that stage, the map was the market and the state. Being the third route, which I think increasingly is opening up partly in response to crisis, and partly in response to the Internet. The opportunities offered by the Internet is that we are seeing a resurgence in commons based initiatives. And for me, this is where the excitement is. And I think this is where the the new generation, its digital savvy, its passion, its desire to find a mission for this generation will find a way of manifesting in ways that I can’t possibly being an analogue 20th century being, even imagine.
Manda: Yeah, I think our brains are wired differently. There’s a brilliant podcast with Jamie Whale, I think, describing his 12 year old daughter, and this was a couple of years ago, but even so… and he set her the challenge, because he’s a serial entrepreneur, that over the summer holidays, if she could get seven of her friends, and her thing was Minecraft, and they just had to create something on Minecraft that he’d never seen before, he would then pay her an amount of money that was was worth doing this. So capitalism in action. And he said, she went, oh okay. And within a day she’d got seven friends, all around the world somewhere, who were prepared to do this. And then he watched them all summer and they were just playing Minecraft. And they get to a week before the end and he’s going, did you actually want the money? And she’s going, oh, yeah. And within that last week, he said he saw in operation something that he doesn’t want to name, because simply in naming it, he would be tying it into his world view. But he saw seven young girls aged 12 creating something that not only had he never seen before, but he could not have conceived of. And they created it in a way that somebody was tasked with making it beautiful. Somebody was tasked with writing the manual that showed how it worked. Somebody else was tasked with the actual mechanics. And he said it just, it was complexity in action. And the way their minds are wired is different. And it feels that we’re kind of in a race at the moment between getting those people to the point where they have enough agency to completely transform the way the world works before the octogenarians, who are currently running the show, have destroyed it. But have you got, just for people listening? Because we’re talking about commons based initiatives. And I imagine for most people that isn’t really firing off thoughts of how that might look in their head. Have you got examples of things that you’ve heard of over the recent past that would flesh that out a little bit?
Jonathan: Sure. So the most obvious example is Wikipedia, an online voluntary peer to peer encyclopaedia that has totally dominated the market, is the most obvious example.
Manda: Yes, OK. But I have a ‘but’ for that, which is I, as you know, am training to be a homeopath, and we’ll leave aside whether you believe in it or not. If you post on Wikipedia anything in support of homeopathy, not only will it be removed, but your ISP will no longer ever be allowed to post anything onto Wikipedia ever again. And that’s not written anywhere, it just happens. So what you have is a very, you know, we’ve got the the ultra libertarian free market, Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged reading group of young men in Silicon Valley who are now defining what reality the world gets to see.
Jonathan: So that is definitely true of the proprietary platforms, like the Google, AirBnB, Uber, like clearly those are manipulating things, are deeply, generating profits. That’s kind of capitalism on steroids. However, like in terms of Wikipedia, and a similar thing happened with TED that actually one of my previous students, Amrita, I think this was before your time, did like one of her project assignments for this module was to create a TED thing in East London, a whole series of TED talks at which a mini Schumacher, and luminaries there like people, guest faculty, were speakers, and both Rupert Sheldrake and Graeme Harpe, their talks were banned from…
Manda: You can still find them. I will find them and put them in the show notes.
Jonathan: But as a general rule, and like I mentioned Elinor Ostrom before, and her work was dedicated around identifying what are the principles, and she found eight principles. You can do a Web search on this, Elinor Ostrom. And these are the principles of successful, effective commons based governance. And so you asked for an example. Let me give you an example, something that’s happening. Really interesting thing of… I keep taking, sorry, rabbit holes are just to irresistible not to go down.
Manda: Go for it. Rabbit holes are fun.
Jonathan: I don’t think any of the students that have gone through this ten year programme that is ten years old, ten iterations, annual iterations of this programme. I don’t think ever any student ever came with the law on the radar, but a number have left with the law on the radar. Sustainable Economies Law Centre in Oakland, California, one of our.. Chris Tittle, one of our graduates is working there, one of a number of recognising that as we scan, and this is very much part of our curriculum, is scanning, using Donella Meadows’ Places to Intervene in a System. Where are the entry points? The leverage points where we can with minimum effort, have maximum impact? And the law, interestingly, is emerging as one of those leverage points. So around the world, governments are defending, they are the defence against civil actions that are being taken, often on behalf of either ecosystems or future generations. So for lack of care and protection to which they’re entitled, that is not being delivered by their governments. I mention that, that’s a kind of a prelude to talking about Uber, and with the troubled Uber is in at the moment. A number of governments, a number of municipalities, including London, saying ‘your business model is fraudulent’ effectively, that these people, your workers who you’re calling associates, independent associates, and therefore you do not needing to provide sickness benefit, holiday and so forth, insurance. And increasingly courts ruling in favour of those bringing the action. So this has led to a number, I believe, and I have this in second hand, but I believe that Edinburgh is a city where they’re having quite some success in developing municipal funded platforms of local taxi drivers.
Manda: Oh, really? Brilliant.
Jonathan: So so whether or not it’s Edinburgh, there are definitely cases. I think Austin, Texas is another one that comes to mind where the taxi drivers are coming together, and creating their own association, and setting the rules over conditions of pay, over the rates that will be charged, over all the dimensions of employment policy relating to the taxi drivers. So this is a really good example of a Commons based approach. In other words, we the people decide services to be delivered, the conditions under which the workers will work in the sector. So the decisions are being taken democratically within the Commons based or community based structure.
Manda: Brilliant. All right. So we’ve got about 10 minutes left. And I’m wondering, if Rishi Sunak woke up this morning and had a bit of a brainstorm and said, OK, what I need is Jonathan Dawson to come in and tell me how to sort out the economy, if you had – first, two questions, if you had that kind of power, do you think you could engineer the soft landing? And if not, what would be your best bracing for impact strategy?
Jonathan: I’m kind of inclined to go for the archetypal Dubliner, or rather, I think it’s Dublin. I think it’s the west of Ireland: ‘I wouldn’t start from here!’ OK, so two answers. One is in terms of significantly responding or significantly equipping yourself for ‘brace for impact’. Governments may not be, like Rishi Sunak might not be the best person to ask. You know, it’s like.. I don’t know if you know, um… there’s a lovely little anecdote of someone saying that they’ve spent their entire life getting to the levers of power, and when they get there, they discover them not attached to anything? I am going to come back to Rishi Sunak, but let me just stay with this thread for a moment. Could it be that if we make it through this impact, this bottleneck in history, that actually we will look back on the 21st century, the dominant thread, the dominant theme of the age in which we live as being the transition from centralised top down, corporate dominated organisational forms to distributed, internet enabled, peer to peer self-organising forms? And again, I’m aware even as I’m speaking, that these are ideological words and they’re still very much in the process of taking form, of taking a firm form. But I think that the general direction of travel, even with the Amazons and Ubers and Facebook, we definitely that is an aberration that we need to find a way around. But with that, those negative examples even of even allowing that they’re in the field, could it be that we will look back at the dominant trend in the era in which we live is being that transition to decentralised and distributed? And if that is the case, maybe Rishi Sunak is not the best informant.
Manda: I just think yes, you’re right. But if he woke up tomorrow and and enacted, let’s say, a Corbynite agenda and, or even an American as of a Joe Biden agenda, and instead of giving 32 billion to Serco to turn plastic bags into PPE, gave 32 billion to the care industry, if he created UBI and actually dared to call it that, instead of pretending it was furlough, if he and if his entire government said, look, guys, we haven’t been honest up till now about climate change to basically take on board the XR ‘we’re asking you to be honest, this is going to finish us all.’ We actually need to put ourselves on a war footing. Our entire economy is now focussed towards whatever it takes to turn the ship around. And we will be bringing in as many people as possible to help. And if that means we dismantle government and turn ourselves into a federation of smaller democracies, then we’ll do that. Whatever it takes, we will do it because extinction is not an option. They could say that. It’s my feeling that we have this kind of Nixon in China moment where if Corbyn did that, the entire media architecture, certainly the legacy media, would jump on his head so hard you wouldn’t see anything like. If someone like Sunak did it, I doubt they could pivot so fast from Sunak being Superman to Sunak being the demon in time. And that would be quite a significant thing to do.
Jonathan: Ok, so in terms of two banners, I’m going to very much build on what you’ve just said, that the two banners that I think that are realistic and achievable, there’s already been action on both fronts, are one: to change the metric at the heart of public policy making, that we move from GDP to a welfare oriented, I mean effectively, it means Rishi employing Kate Raworth as his right hand woman. That is, not just be a cosmetic, because by changing what you make, the things that you measure, you don’t necessarily effect any change unless you take that seriously. Yes, but in putting a post gross domestic product metric at the heart of public policy. Second is to employ, as Kate’s other right hand woman, Mariano Mazzucato. So in other words, that the government policy be focussed on specific missions. So you’re changing the shape of government from vertical silo based, to horizontal mission based. And amongst those missions are going to be climate change, biodiversity loss, public health, on and on and on.
Manda: Can you share a little bit more? Because I’m not fully understanding the difference between silo based and horizontal, vertical and horizontal. Can you say what vertical looks like and what horizontal looks like?
Jonathan: So the vertical is that, like this: so the silo is the government department. So let’s say, for example, one of the areas that is ripe for missioning that Mariano mentions in her most recent book is transport. Now, at the moment, the Transport Department does transport. It does roads, it those bicycles. It doesn’t talk necessarily to people in the health service. Or who are all the other departments that have, in terms of diet? I mean, again, another one is obesity. So it’s it’s not just a health issue. It’s ranged across government departments that have found it really difficult to talk to each other, and their focus has been on activity that in some way will contribute to GDP. Often.
Manda: Right. Yeah, that’s why they’re building new relief road round…
Jonathan: For example.
Manda: Yes, right. OK, so we change the focus, and then we create what Tony Blair was trying to do when he talked about, what was it? Intelligent governance or something? I can’t remember. He had a phrase, didn’t he, Blair? Evidence led government. It wasn’t that. But anyway, that idea where departments are actually talking to each other and having a common goal. So what, transport… transport to be efficient and in people’s welfare. The underlying government then would have to have an ethos, something to which all of these missions were targeted, like the winning of a war in the way that, in the old days. What would be the aim of these horizontals?
Jonathan: Well, I think it’s a doughnut. It is, how do we inhabit the safe and… what does she call it, the safe and something space for humanity? Safe and just space for humanity? So, in other words, that we’re.. that the overall meta objective of government policy is ways of provisioning for ourselves that keep us within the physical planetary boundaries, with a minimum floor below which people should not fall, in terms of access to health services, nutrition and multiple other indicators that she has developed. I mean, I’m guessing all of your listeners will have heard of Kate Raworth, but if not…
Manda: Well, if they don’t, it’s because they haven’t listened to previous podcasts. But go on, give us the very brief…
Jonathan: I’m not going to describe it, but but rather that: chase up ‘doughnut economics’.
Manda: Absolutely. If you only read one book this year, it needs to be that one. And actually in a couple of weeks time, we’re talking one week to the people of the city of Amsterdam, its governers, of one week to the people of the citizenry of Amsterdam, because Amsterdam has committed to becoming a Doughnut city. And I think that’s going to be a really interesting pair of podcasts. So people, if you want to do any homework, you read Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. I will link it in the show notes. It’ll be the most exciting economics book you have ever read, possibly also the only economics book you’ve ever read. But it’s well worth reading because it takes us through neoliberalism and why it’s not working and takes us to what the models could be that would work instead. So that’s a very good bit of homework.
Jonathan: And so Kate has been for the last five, six years, she has taught in this programme, this Regenerative Economics. And so the little anecdote I want to bring in is that I set off to write a blog that was shamelessly promotional, because it was a really good news story for this course. And the good news was that one of our graduates from this programme had been just been employed to work for the Doughnut Economics.
Manda: Rob Shorter. Friend of the podcast.
Jonathan: Rob Shorter. And that I reflected, ha, there’s two members of the team and they’ve both been through this programme. Ha, interesting. And then I saw this promotional piece, which is really just saying, you know, come and do the programme, I then had this reflection that of all the different job titles that I can think of, alumni that have come through the programme: lawyer, anthropologist, researcher, on and on and on, working with Kate, NGO workers, for example, the one label that I don’t think any of my former graduates have on their desk is ‘Economist’. I thought, that’s interesting, you know, what is that? And my little bit of my exploration then began to turn into a real blog rather than a little promotional piece, was, ha – what does this tell us about both the state of economics, and the course that we’re running? The conclusion that I came to that I articulate in this blog, it’s on our Schumacher College website.
Manda: I’ll link to it.
Jonathan: Actually there are two different separate disciplines that are operating under the banner of economics, but they’ve had very little contact. They get a little bit, but not very much. So one strand, which is the dominant strand in the media and society, is economics as mathematics, is focussed on markets and money. And it’s the fundamental, unchallenged assumption is that economic growth translates directly into human well-being, and therefore is a self-declared objective study into how we maximise economic growth. Whereas the second discipline, which is also called economics, which is what we teach here, is a branch of moral philosophy. It’s turning economics to its roots and moral philosophy. So people like Adam Smith and Karl Marx. You know, had no notion that economics was primarily about mathematics, it wasn’t. It was a fundamentally a study of ethics, and questioning this core assumption that growth translates directly into economics. So I think that this is just a really interesting little pivot in terms of the power of conditional thinking, and that if we recognise that actually there are two totally separate disciplines which tend to come to very different conclusions, both calling themselves economics.
Manda: Yes. And what we want for a world that’s going to be regenerative is more moral philosophers who understand how value moves around the world, and fewer people who think they’re practising a form of physics that has solid laws.
Jonathan: Totally. The late, lamented David Graeber used to say all these organisations with their chief economists, we need a suite of organisations with a chief anthropologist.
Manda: Yes. Oh, I was so keen to get David on the podcast. Yeah. His loss to the world is so great. We need to stop quite soon because we’re over our hour. This went in places I really wasn’t expecting. I feel we could do several more podcasts without effort. Is there anything that you would like to have talked about that we haven’t, in closing?
Jonathan: I mean, I think it’s something that’s been on the margin of everything we’ve talked about, is to do with education. It’s like I’m, I’ve become progressively more fascinated over the years with the learning process. And it was much of my reading at the moment. And writing as well is about challenging core assumptions of classroom etiquette in terms of, for example, the assumed authority of the teacher who is expected to deliver, to transfer a fixed body of knowledge to a largely impassive group of students. The idea that the only learning faculty is the intellect, and that actually the body is primarily a vehicle for carrying it around. The idea that education is an individual competitive pursuit, and that cooperation is called cheating. Our series of assumptions and education that I think go right back to Plato again, they go right back to this notion of a competitive, scarce competition on individual basis, and that is ripe for overturning.
Manda: Yes, our other podcasts would be OK, so how are we going to overturn this and what would the world look like? But then it would look like Schumacher, because so much of what we learnt was embodied. And spiritual, and connected, and cooperative.
Jonathan: Indeed. But our attempt is to return the learning process to what people would do left to their own devices. People gain confidence, self-confidence in their own their own native intelligence, which has been squashed by the conventional system.
Manda: Yes, and returning our trust in each other, I think was a big thing for me. We did a podcast last week with the people who created the video of the Children’s Fire, and they said that they were allowing it to spread at the pace of trust. And I thought that was a really beautiful analogy. And it reminded me a lot of Schumacher, that what we learnt was to trust ourselves and each other, and the process. And that only when we had all three of those lined up did the world feel like it was a smooth place. But then it felt very smooth. It was good. So in closing, do you want to say a little tiny bit for people who might be interested of how the course is going to be, the economics course in this post covid world? Is it going to be more online still?
Jonathan: We’re lucky in that we have actually made the decision to shift the delivery format even before covid. So we were already preparing traditionally the course, as with most of our master’s programmes here at the college, has been fully residential. So it’s a very immersive residential programme. There were just a number of weaknesses with, I mean, we loved the model, but we recognised that in terms of accessibility and affordability, that many people who wanted to come couldn’t come. Either they couldn’t come because they couldn’t afford it, or because they couldn’t relocate to Devon for a year. And so we’ve moved it to a kind of a hybrid system where of the four six-week top modules, the first two weeks are in residence at the college, and then the next four are online. So that’s the that’s the design we’ve been working to for this year, but we haven’t really been able to do that. But our hope is next year, that from next academic year, starting in September. That we will have this new format.
Manda: Fantastic. Alrighty. I will put links in the show notes to everything that you’ve talked about and to college, and just absolutely people, if you ever have a chance to to attend Schumacher in whatever form, it is a life changing experience. So, Jonathan, thank you so much for coming on.
Jonathan: As ever, totally delightful. Thanks, Manda.
Manda: So that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Jonathan for the spark of his smile, and for the depth of his intellect, and his thinking, and the breadth of his reading, and his capacity to bring ideas together into a coherent space, that I still think might get us towards a soft landing. I haven’t given up on that yet. But even if we’re bracing for impact, with thinking like this, we can make it something that leaves future generations proud of us. Looking back to say these are the people who really tried and they didn’t get it right all of the time, but they got it right enough of the time. And that, for me, is what we have to do now. If Kim Stanley Robinson is right and I will link to his book in the show notes, we have about eight years in which to make a screaming U-turn of how we work, of how our economy functions, of how the world shares its value amongst the people and the other than the human world. So really, if you’re listening to this podcast, we know that you care, it matters more than anything else, I think now that we share ideas with each other, that we begin to build the local networks of people who understand what’s going on and are interested in making change. And then we work out how to give each other agency. So the reading that Jonathan suggested, Kate, Raworth, Marijana, Masakazu, Tim Jackson, all of those are worth reading just to get your heads around the ideas of what can be done.
And then Kim Stanley Robinson’s Minister of the future and possibly Bill Gates. I know he’s a trigger factor, but I think the time to let go of triggers is about now. Each of these has ideas of what we can do that will work in the timescales that we have and we need those ideas. So if you’re looking for something to read, click on just about anything in the show notes. And meanwhile, we will be back next week with another conversation.
You may also like these recent podcasts
Primary Strategy: Growing a new voting paradigm in the South Devon Primary
How do we introduce genuine democracy to our broken voting system? South Devon Primary group have an idea that could change everything.
No More Fairy Stories: Writing the way through, one tale at a time with Denise Baden
We know we have most of the answers to the poly crisis. Our challenge is getting them into the mainstream. And that means we need to understand what works when we craft our new narratives of how the world could look and feel.
Meeting the Ocean: Rekindling our deepest connections through art and science with Markus Reymann
How do we bring artists, scientists, policy makers, educators, conservationists, journalists, and all the different siloed tribes together in ways that let them genuinely communicate and listen to the web of life?
Proudly Mad: exploring mental health and the climate emergency with Charlie Hertzog Young
How did one man make the shift from Not wanting to live in this world, to refusing to live in ‘this’ world? Manda and Charlie discuss the interface between mental health, the climate emergency and what we now call eco-anxiety (but which needs a rather stronger name than that implies).
STAY IN TOUCH
For a regular supply of ideas about humanity's next evolutionary step, insights into the thinking behind some of the podcasts, early updates on the guests we'll be having on the show - AND a free Water visualisation that will guide you through a deep immersion in water connection...sign up here.
(NB: This is a free newsletter - it's not joining up to the Membership! That's a nice, subtle pink button on the 'Join Us' page...)