Review: Is the ‘post-industrial economy’ just radical social entrepreneurship?

Review:
No Straight Lines: Making Sense of our Non-Linear World
by Alan Moore, Bloodstone Books (UK) 2011

Alan Moore

What’s the economy of the future? For designer and SMLXL founder Alan Moore it’s ‘open-sourced’, ‘bottom-up managed’, ‘co-created’, ‘mass-customized’, ‘adaptive’, and ‘human-scale’. Don’t be put off by the jargon, Moore’s argument in No Straight Lines is simple and compelling.

The world has changed and our major institutions from markets to politics are splitting at the seams in a struggle to adapt.

Much of Moore’s book is a straight-forward survey of modern ideas about what he calls the ‘post-industrial economy.’

In the post-industrial world agility and creativity reign supreme. In business, firms can no longer afford to be rigid hierarchies. Their employees can no longer count on a 30-year career in only one area, for only one employer. One-size-fits-all education can’t prepare us to thrive in this new world.

Unaccountable, opaque bureaucracies can’t solve social problems without local knowledge of the communities they govern. Communities themselves are suburban wastelands with no public spaces for togetherness or merrymaking.

Moore goes deeper still, arguing that this structural mismatch is making people feel alienated. Our yearnings for authenticity, human connection, and true community reveal themselves in our behavior on and offline. Think Burning Man and World of Warcraft guilds.

People without a community and without a sense of pride in their craft turn to rampant consumerism for fulfillment. Culture becomes the decadence of conspicuous consumption rather than a search for meaning.

Fair enough. RSE is all about addressing these disparities.

The diagnosis of No Straight Lines is spot-on, with one serious problem.

Many theorists of the ‘post-industrial economy’, Moore included, position themselves as enemies of the industrial revolution and capitalism as a whole. Moore makes liberal use of a caricature of supporters of open markets.

These ‘market fundamentalists’, as he terms them, are reactionaries. They oppose the impending post-industrial world because of their allegiance or financial interest in ‘hypercapitalism’.

Leaving aside the mixed-blessings of how industrialization came to be, Moore seems to think that today we are suffering the bitter fruit of laissez-faire capitalism.

This is false.

“What vitiates capitalism,” said an earlier writer on human social evolution, “is not its growth but its immaturity; that the use of [private] capital … has not been properly extended to community goods.”

Moore’s chief examples of today’s dysfunction are precisely in the areas run by power, coercion, and bureaucracy. These areas are dominated by politics, not entrepreneurial markets.

Education in the West is almost entirely controlled by top-down bureaucratic standards. By and large, schools are not created by entrepreneurs, but by political will. Is it surprising that they fail to create the innovative learning that people need for ‘post-industry’?

Zoning and assorted other top-down regulations restrict the shape and function of communities. Discriminatory tax codes prevent holistic communities with a single land title from forming (think common interest developments like resorts, hotels, or universities).

Instead, politics favors dispersed suburban subdivisions, where all residents must rely on the municipal bureaucracy to solve their collective problems. Poor management of public funds leaves little money behind for the common spaces that Moore craves.

Suburbia

Indeed, the area most clearly disrupted by major changes in technology are the markets least dominated by political bureaucracy.

Moore refers continuously to the innovation and creativity of the tech sector. This should be no surprise. But it is inconvenient for his thesis.

The tech sector is not yet fully a ward of nation-state legal and regulatory machinery. With some serious exceptions, it is a closer approximation to laissez-faire than markets like manufacturing, which were long ago captured by special interests and had their structure distorted in favor of established interests.

As the case of San Francisco’s ride-sharing start-ups shows, even clean, community-enhancing innovations of the sort that Moore would love find their biggest challenges in politics, not laissez-faire.

In the end, Moore calls for a ‘new operating system’ for humanity – one based on mutuality, openness, free-participation, trial and error, and decentralization. I couldn’t agree more.

But Moore’s new operating system sounds suspiciously like entrepreneurial markets stripped of some of their more corporatist features.

If we are heading into the post-industrial world, we should strip ourselves of the biases and sloppy language of the past. If capitalism just means a decentralized structure of open, entirely consensual and peaceful exchange then how does this oppose the radical leveling tendency of modern technology?

Capitalism, defined strictly as consensual exchange and entrepreneurship, is the driving force of the innovations lionized by Moore.

To view the post-industrial economy as, in essence, capitalistic does not mean embracing consumerism or defending the public and private abuses by corporations.

The best way we can fight the meaninglessness of consumerism is by allowing people to band together entrepreneurially and create new firms with new philosophies, new schools with new methods, and entirely new communities with new creative ethics.

Misguided regulation crushes the start-up school or the small artisan of Moore’s post-industrial world first and foremost.

The true mismatch is between Moore’s optimistic and compelling sketch of our shared future and the cynicism and sclerosis of politics. That is, politics in the abstract. If we believe all things are in upheaval, then rearranging political parties or piecemeal reform simply won’t work.

This is not an expression of ‘market fundamentalism’ or ‘hypercapitalism’. It’s the sober acceptance that political institutions are also a technology. And they’re long overdue for some of the creative destruction that Moore has sketched so beautifully.

RSE is pushing for exactly this: to take the enterprising spirit that has worked wonders in technology into politics, education, and culture. Is the post-industrial economy just RSE, writ large? Recommended.