What tools should we be building to end capitalism?

Someone recently asked me:

In terms of ending capitalism, what tools do we need to start building? How can we help one another connect to the resources we need? If we need laptops and phones to stay connected, but we do not have the natural resources to build them in communities close to us, how do we help one another connect and create while staying decentralized? Does that make sense? Are you already envisioning particular tools?

I wrote an answer I think is the synthesis of a lot of my thoughts about this, and want to share:

That is a really big question. To fully answer, I think it requires an agreement on definitions and a solid shared understanding of those definitions. That’s not something a lone email will be able to offer, so I have to refer you to a number of other sources for that kind of background. (We’ve talked about a lot of them in person, already.)

That said, with the necessary background, I think the answer to “what tools should we be building in terms of ending capitalism” is to rephrase the question so it’s more like: “What are some useful paradigms/models/frameworks we should be building tools based on in order to speed capitalism’s demise?”

I think it’s more important to understand capitalism as a way of thinking than it is to understand that a given tool X is implemented “capitalistically,” because ultimately capitalism is not a thing any more than love or hate are “things.” Capitalism is not a thing one can hold in one’s hand. Rather, it is a way of experiencing the things one holds in one’s hands, or feels about other people with whom one has relationships. There is no physical or digital tool that can directly change such an abstract thing.

Change must come from the other direction: how one thinks and what one values. It is obvious that “how one thinks and what one values” greatly affects the tools one makes, as well as affecting how one chooses to use said tool(s). If you value domination, you will choose to make tools that increase your ability to be dominating. Domination is ultimately what capitalism—the way of being a productive member of society as we know it today—rewards, both financially and otherwise. If society is to thrive, that needs to change away from valuing domination and towards valuing empathy and trust. A society based on domination is not one in which most people’s individual quality of life is high. That’s not just my opinion; a lot has been written in a great many academic and other fields about the importance and correlation of empathy and trust in societies for a joyous life. (Google it.)

But no tool, even tools that were carefully crafted to avoid conferring the ability to dominate on their users, are immune from being used in ways that dominate others. The evidence of this is simply that someone who wishes to dominate someone else can simply withhold knowledge of said tool from them (using the innate human ability of not speaking to that person), thereby increasing the gap of capability between themselves and the person they seek to dominate. And notice that this has nothing to do with the design of said tool. The problem is a human, cultural one, not a technological one.

So with all that said (and hopefully understood), if one chooses to build tools anyway, as I do, and if one chooses to do so with the intent of destroying capitalism, as I do, then it’s important that the tools we choose to build are carefully chosen so their predictable impacts have the most benefit to those who share our intent of destroying capitalism and the least benefit to capitalists.

There are some tools that benefit one group of people more than others. But knowing which these are or will be is complex because that trade-off is never static; it changes with each new tool’s introduction and also with the changing cultural morays of a given society in a given time. This isn’t always predictable, but what is predictable is the ways in which different groups incorporate new tools. Bruce Schneier writes about this when he says:

There are technologies that immediately benefit the defender and are of no use at all to the attacker – for example, fingerprint technology allowed police to identify suspects after they left the crime scene and didn’t provide any corresponding benefit to criminals. The same thing happened with immobilizing technology for cars, alarm systems for houses, and computer authentication technologies. Some technologies benefit both but still give more advantage to the defenders. The radio allowed street policemen to communicate remotely, which increased our level of safety more than the corresponding downside of criminals communicating remotely endangers us.

As anti-capitalists, one of our goals should be to identify, design, and deploy technologies that are more use to anti-capitalists than capitalists. There are many good examples of this. Food banks. Public libraries. Distributed telecommunications (like BitTorrent, IPFS, Tor onion services, etc.). Fighting for truly public spaces (like how Occupy Wall Street tried to take back public parks for living purposes). All of these things are anti-capitalist, and there are many more more like them. We should support all of these things and anything that supports those things, would be great.

In other words, we need to be building infrastructure. And when I say infrastructure, I don’t just mean anti-capitalist infrastructure (infrastructure useful for directly attacking capitalism, such as defunding and directly combating the existence of militaries and police, as projects like CopWatch or our project, Buoy, aims to do, although I do think this is useful and important, too). I specifically mean ALTERNATIVE infrastructure: infrastructure useful for doing things other than capitalism.

What does infrastructure enabling doing things other than capitalism look like? That’s a HUGE, diverse array of things that are actually pretty familiar. Public (shared) roadways are the canonical example. Roads themselves are a tool; they are neither capitalist nor anti-capitalist, they have existed long before capitalism. The capitalist part of the modern conception of a roadway is the part where someone thinks to themselves, “there’s a pothole here, but I’ll do nothing about that because it is not my job to fix it, it is the State’s job to send someone here to patch this up.” That’s how capitalism ends up taking over control of roadways. That’s the force that ultimately enables a powerful, dominating entity, such as a government or corporation, to put up toll booths and “privatize” and thereby control access to an otherwise uncontrollable, un-ownable thing such as physical movement.

We’ve already begun building alternatives to this way of thinking. For example, see the “citizen pothole reporting mobile app” developed over 6 years ago.

This kind of app is a nice try, and there have been a lot of these coming from initiatives like (the badly misguided) “Code for America” brigades, but it ultimately benefits capitalists because the developers of these apps take the basic assumption of capitalism (that someone “owns” the road—and that this owner is the State) and amplifies it.

A more anti-capitalist or capitalist-alternative “pothole fixing” app would have included instructions for how to fix potholes in the app itself, included a feature for locating the materials needed to fix potholes on the map (even if that just means directions to the nearest Home Depot), and then walked the end-user through the process of traveling to and fixing the potholes that they navigated to. Of course, anti-capitalism is a gradient. To offer an even more effective alternative to capitalism, the app could include a feature where people are able to list their own garages as spaces where other users (pothole-fixers) could freely take and/or borrow the supplies needed for fixing potholes. Like a pothole-fixing equivalent of a food bank. Instead, all the app does is further centralize responsibility, not to mention the knowledge, for fixing potholes in the entity who is already not doing a good job of fixing potholes: the local (capitalist) government, while also turning citizens into agents who, themselves, further enforce the cult of capitalism amongst their peers.

Do you see the difference?

So when you ask me, “what tools do we need to build in terms of ending capitalism?” my answer is: “we need to rebuild every single tool that exists, including the tools used for fixing potholes in the streets.”

Which tool will you work on? There are many to choose from. Each is important. Each is necessary. The key point to understand is that building alternatives to capitalism do not come about by building anti-capitalist technology. It comes about by building pro-social technologies IN AN ANTI-CAPITALIST WAY.

In other words, alternatives to capitalism are all about the process, the journey, the way in which you do a thing, not the product, the destination, or the specific thing you choose to do or build.

Hope this helps,
-maymay
Maymay.net
Cyberbusking.org