The Open Socialism Project
The Open Socialism project posits the idea that capitalism and democracy have existed for 300 years in a similar fundamental form. Meanwhile, technology, science and modes of organization have greatly advanced. So many new ways of structuring a society are now possible. Surely, a modern rethink can be better and indeed is necessary given the current levels of wealth inequality and environmental destruction.
Open Socialism has one specific idea, but there are many possibilities. The goal is produce the best possible alternative, whatever shape it ends up taking.
What is ‘Open Socialism’?
Open Socialism (OS) is a rethink of how to manage a society. It starts with an optimistic base concept that focuses on broad scale cooperation, but then layers on processes and ideas to keep people motivated and prevent corruption. It looks at human nature through the lens of our evolution and attempts to recapture the good parts of a tribal society, but in a way that can work on a grand scale. It borrows heavily from modern team and culture management, in particular the open source model.
Before getting into the specifics let’s look at some attributes of a tribal society.
The Tribal Model
Humans (Homo sapiens) evolved to operate in small nomadic tribes. We have been using this model since we evolved around 315,000 years ago. It can be considered as humans natural system.
Let’s look at some of the attributes of tribes.
- Strong sense of community
- Heavy cooperation
- Limited power and wealth inequality
All these attributes are important. We have evolved to operate in such a way. However, what are the key differences between the tribal model and the systems we have had since then?
Wealth accumulation is not possible
In the tribal model the maximum wealth and power attainable is to rule the tribe. This can only be achieved through clear and ongoing merit. The leader of the tribe may get the best share of the food, the best place to sleep and the choice of tools and clothing but beyond this no more wealth or power can be attained.
In newer systems initial wealth and power may be acquired through merit and providing value to everyone, but from there wealth and power snowballs. Ongoing value to all need not be provided and over time the wealthy and powerful can be very focused on their own benefit over the greater good. This process continues to the next generation.
Self interest is directly aligned with the good of the tribe
To be successful one needs to be valuable to the tribe. Leaders are selected by their intelligence or strength. Providing this value to the tribe helps one be attractive and get selected as a mate.
In newer systems self interest sometimes coincides with the good of the group but often does not. Making money often involves manipulating others or exploiting the weak. The more money one accumulates the less their labor seems to benefit others.
The Tribal Model Conclusion
Reasonable wealth and power inequality based on merit is beneficial and natural to humans. Accumulation beyond this is counter productive and leads to extreme and unmerited power centralization and corruption.
A key metric of a society is to what degree does self interested behavior align with the good of the group. A more deliberate and organized society focused on the greater good like the tribal model should be possible.
Humans are not purely selfish. Humans are social cooperative animals who live in groups. Societal systems based on cooperation are not alien to us.
So how do we go about designing a modern system with the good parts of the tribal model?
A Cooperative Base System
Let’s start with a cooperative base system. This means that people primarily work together for the greater good of the group. There may be elements of competition and selfishness, but these are not the primary mode of operation.
What are the benefits?
A cooperative system means that through leadership a group can have a directed purpose. For example a tribe can decide to migrate if food is depleting in their current area. This is far more difficult with systems that have everyone working to their own self interest.
The modern example is climate change, where it is clearly to the groups interest to greatly limit carbon emissions and halt climate change, but executing this is not possible due to an individualistic selfish base system.
The other significant benefit is a large amount of resources is not wasted through competition. For example, in capitalism companies spend a large amount of money on marketing, legal battles and also each invent similar technology in isolation.
For a multitude of reasons, at least on paper, a cooperative system is more efficient and effective.
What are the issues?
Since the tribal system, cooperative systems have not been stable. Notably communism has either completely destabilized or been largely ineffective. If a cooperative system is better on paper why have they not been successful?
Wealth / power accumulation is possible
Communism has ideals of fair distribution of wealth and power, however it turns out this is exceptionally difficult to implement. Humans will naturally seek advantage for themselves and a system designed to limit that needs to be watertight. If not corruption and inequality will snowball and society will suffer.
Self interest is aligned to the benefit of the group
Communism on paper beautifully aligns self interest with the good of the group, by everyone working directly for the group’s purpose. However, if corruption and inequality have snowballed, the means of raising your own wealth is no longer about providing value to the group, but providing value to the corrupt and powerful people.
Limited motivation to excel
Communism has another large issue in that it has not greatly incentivized excellence. The rewards for great work have not been sufficient to the individual and so progress has typically languished.
A cooperative system without the downsides?
The cooperative model is on paper much better, but in practice at a large scale has not proven to be viable. Going back to capitalism is one way, but can a cooperative system be constructed that has mechanisms in place to mitigate these issues? Are there examples of modern systems of organization that have desirable aspects of cooperative systems but avoid the downsides?
The Open Source Model
Open Source Software (OSS) is free software that is developed in the open. The code is fully accessible and you are free to take a copy and modify it. Business can be involved in the development of OSS, but OSS projects are typically run separately from businesses and anyone can contribute. Teams are usually distributed around the world and the work is unpaid.
Probably you are thinking this wouldn’t work. People doing unpaid work, distributed teams and a lack of commercial direction. However, OSS has been extremely successful with virtually all commercial software depending on it in some way.
The Open Source Model is the processes used to manage open source projects and teams. This process has a lot in common with the tribal model, but it operates in a highly different environment. What are some aspects?
Motivation to excel
There are in fact benefits to working on OSS. Since anyone can see your work it demonstrates your skill to potential employers (as most OSS developers work for businesses in their day job). It gains you the respect of other developers (an open source community is like a tribe). It improves your skills which again adds value to your regular employer. It will add social media followers which also demonstrates your level of esteem to employers.
You might grow to lead an OSS project, but that is the most power inequality that can exist within an OSS community.
Self interest aligned to the good of the group
The only way to become prominent in or lead an OSS team is to provide great value.
Corruption is limited
Corruption in OSS is tricky at best. The ideal followed is that all communication is done in the open and available to all. Even if deals were made behind people’s backs actual decisions would need to be swayed through reason in the public deliberations.
The ideals of the tribal model live on
Their aren’t many people living in literal tribes anymore but the good stuff about the tribal model lives on. Modern business, in particular technology companies are also moving to similar models with the formation of actual ‘tribes’ and utilize processes that mirror how humans operate in actual tribes.
‘Open Socialism’ - The tribal model on a grand scale
What would the good parts of tribes applied to a society look like?
Broad scale cooperation
A society that can organize and direct work to the greatest good is a highly desirable configuration. This gives the ability to deal with problems like global warming. Or society can achieve a deliberate balance between short term gain and long term investment eg. spend a large amount on scientific research. Part of this is of course, no free enterprise.
Broad scale cooperation is the optimistic base part of open socialism. It’s on paper better but brings its own set of issues.
The tribal model and successful modern cooperative systems all have some degree of inequality. Humans are motivated to excel and get ahead. The communist ideal “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” is in fact not ideal.
Humans will try and get ahead and attract a good mate and should be given the means to do so. However, the rewards do not need to be excessive. Humans have always striven to be respected and successful. The carrot of becoming a billionaire that capitalism dangles is unnecessary and counter productive since extreme wealth concentration also brings its own set of issues.
Align self interest with the greater good
Humans need the ability to strive and reap benefits, however by itself, this isn’t necessarily good for society. Not only do people need to be motivated, they ideally should be motivated towards the greater good of all. Therefore ‘success’ for an individual is also ‘success’ for society.
In a directed cooperative society it is possible to perform this alignment. It is far more difficult with a selfish base system, in which constant regulation and auditing is required to keep people in check.
The classical problem with cooperative directed societies (and societies in general) has been corruption breaking the societies lofty ideals. The tribal system could only have limited corruption since wealth accumulation was only possible to a limited degree. Since agriculture, this has no longer been the case.
The other interesting mechanism in a tribal society is that it was very open. There is only so much skulduggery that can occur in a group of bonded individuals living in close proximity.
Openness automatically limits corruption since corruption needs to happen under the nose of the rest of society. The open source model has shown people can coordinate with fully open communication.
This needs to be coupled with some kind of mini-democratic decision making process. If an individual is making the decisions corruption becomes much more possible.
We can do better
Capitalism, communism and democracy are systems that have been dominant from around 300 years ago. With the explosion of technology, science and our understanding of human nature we have the tools to create far better systems.
Open Socialism is one such attempt that cherry picks ideas from many places, but primarily is attempting to replicate the good attributes of the highly successful tribal system but implemented on a grand scale.
Can we ever implement such a system?
All we can say is that replacing capitalism cannot happen without an alternative to move to. Communism / Socialism / Marxism have good elements, but they have not been effective systems and are, perhaps rightly, regarded as non-viable. Therefore, step 1 is to create a viable and compelling alternative. Step 2 is how do we either start using said new system, or at the least move the current system towards it.
Develop Open Socialism
Open Socialism is the seed concept of a new and better system, but it also an open source project itself. Through collaboration and iteration it should be possible to develop a superior system.