Toward a general theory of symbiosis in the economy

November 22nd, 2015

Take as a given: Evolution in the natural world proceeds through the conversion of energy into structures. All forms of advance are reflected in the emergence of higher and higher levels of quasi-stable sequences of organized processes. Our world is an open system, open to energy in the form of sunlight, and able to convert that energy into structure.

The work of the Commons theorists, e.g. Benkler, Bolier, Raymond concern the generation of valuable structures through the combined efforts of members of communities to explore and establish symbiosis. They describe how structures are created by people combining resources, values, ideas, designs, problems, and expanding participation by people. Their focus is, crucially, on social movements to generate symbiosis; movements motivated by passion, believe, recognition of the power of cooperation, interest in developing and showcasing skills, and so on. Importantly, the development of symbiosis is not dependent upon the formal monetized economy. It may be helped by it, it may contribute to it, but its generative power does not derive from it.

The work of these scholars nicely meshes with those who have pointed out that “homemaking” and so-called (gender biased) “women’s work” and other informal contributions are central to our lives as societies. Moreover, the fact that these contributions are non-monetized and “off the books” is essential to the working of the formal economic system. Like environmental exploitation, including the use of fossil fuels, the exploitation of informal labor complements harsher forms of human exploitation that have been essential contributors to economic development, including slavery and systematic underpayment for labor.

In addition, this scholarly work is complemented by the findings of development economics that the capacities of societies to provide material benefits to their members is mostly dependent on informal and largely tacit social facts, including education, health, freedom from strife, and social norms.

In short, human society and its real endowment are vastly dependent on an informal landscape of symbiotic relationships many times larger and more significant that the formal, priced economy. The priced economy is indeed the tip of the iceberg, or better, encompasses just a small part of the social ecosystem.

And yet our predominant policy narratives in the United States ignore these realities.

Militarized drones targeting people from the air create fear that disrupts symbiosis. The social movements that can thrive in a wartime environment are notoriously simple-minded, resource and structure destroying, and violent.

Domestically the working out of our monetary policy is handled by a “capital distribution system” that generates formal purchasing power–that is, new money–that is distributed from our government through a few large banks, to other banks and to asset managers, who in turn spend this new money on investable, formal assets. Little of this money reaches people through the informal economy and at the informal, social foundations of our society. Why then are we surprised that formal asset prices are high, and indicators of broader well-being are low?

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