Digital Distributism
Part IV: How we convince the wealthy that shared prosperity is even possible

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 25 August 2022

the main article image

This is the fourth part of an essay written for the Institute for the Future’s Equitable Enterprise Initiative.

Most economists still have trouble understanding a concept as simple as distributism, primarily because they still believe in the “Jack Welch” mythology of growth and abstraction as the only path to profit. That’s just a wrong story, and it doesn’t mean we should give up trying to teach a better one. Anyone who understands basic arithmetic can eventually be made to see how circulating money can lead to mutual prosperity.

For just one simple example, consider the US Steelworkers Union. Instead of investing their retirement savings in random stock funds, they chose to invest in construction projects that hired steelworkers! So they earned ownership of buildings while also paying themselves back their own money in salary. After this success, they got the even brighter idea of investing in construction projects that provided retirement housing for their parents and their own retiring members. When I describe such circular investment strategies to most audiences of bankers and economists, they react as if these are illegal schemes. But this double and triple dipping is not a conflict of interests at all.

Only with bounded investments and communities — such as the African-American cooperative communities described by Jessica Gordon-Nembard in her marvelous book Collective Courage — can people generate what we might call the “cyclone” effect required to support a sustainable velocity of money. While African-American communities achieved bounded economics through necessity — they were not allowed to participate in the greater economy — we can now use bounded economics as a strategic choice. In short, it’s better to earn one dollar ten times, than ten dollars just once.

The rightmost column on the chart is most like the first column — except it achieves its goals consciously. We reinstate the commons because we understand the alternatives. We retrieve the artisanal economy in a digital environment not because it’s old-fashioned, but because we finally have the ability to network these businesses and distribute their products.

From a narrative perspective, we are retrieving the best of the artisanal, market, and industrial economies and expressing them intentionally and appropriately. We are in a new renaissance, retrieving and re-birthing the forms and ideas that were repressed in the last one. We still leverage our industrial capacity in order to make iPhones, but we don’t mandate that everything conform to industrial scale. Food and home building materials can be sourced locally instead of shipped around the world. Molybdenum may require a global supply chain, but not everything does. It’s not a one-size-fits-all economic vision, but one that accommodates different activities at different scales.

But to engage like this in a new spirit of equitable enterprise, we must gain the capacity to tell ourselves a different story about how we got here and how to chart a new course. We need a new narrative that celebrates the benefits of localism and human scaled enterprise, while obsolescing industrial and Renaissance adulation of the “individual” and “sovereignty” over collectivism and collaboration. The self-sovereignty fetishism of the crypto boosters must be exposed as the futile last gasp of failed exponential capitalism that it is.

For once we can dissemble this false goal of individual freedom and personal wealth, then all these promises of sovereignty and individual liberty will feel less like prods to compete than red flags to drop out. Self-sovereignty simply means we get to be alone.

By telling a new story, we get a new theory of change as well. Rather than attacking the power structures, which only reifies them, we are freed simply to deflate the power structures. This happens easily, incrementally, and in the course of our daily life. If we buy stuff from one another instead of Amazon or Walmart, those companies deflate of their own accord. If we lend, borrow, and do favors for each other, then we take even more pressure off the economy, banking, and currency, and create more trust and social fiber to our communities in the process.

Now, many of my colleagues envision a different sort of equitable enterprise where instead of taking things off the ledger, we utilize blockchain to put more of human value creation back onto the ledger. They believe this is the only way to recognize nurture, motherhood, community contributions, and all sorts of labor on which communities depend. Yet while the blockchain may be capable of recording and creating metrics for the value created by every human action, I believe such quantification of humanity works less to create equity than to reduce the quality of human interaction to a market phenomenon. The era of “social” contributions about which Marx was enamored was one where each family member simply did their part. It was social precisely because it was not numerical or financial.

No, throwing more human activity onto the blockchain just renders it grist for the next monopolist who controls either the token, the protocols through which the tokens are exchanged, the mining through which the tokens are minted, or the exchanges on which the tokens are converted into currency capable of paying taxes. Instead of substituting for trust with new crypto protocols, it is time we build trust through networks of solidarity and mutual aid.

Such trust and solidarity is hard right now. We have lost the ability to work together. Even my favorite journalists are growing so intolerant of editing or challenges to their ideas that they are leaving magazines to set up their own “Substacks” where no one can ask them to change their writing. Like the blockchain, such systems ask us to focus on the individual creator or node, our individual IP and verifiable address and self-sovereignty rather than sharing and solidarity. We balkanize our economy to a granularity of just one individual. We lose the magazine, the group, the collective, the cooperative, the small town…each other.

That’s why the most important story to revise is that of personal success, individual achievement, and winning as rising above the rest to achieve true autonomy. There’s no such thing as individual agency, personal sovereignty, or self-actualization. These are myths that only sustain the fallacious premise of competitive capitalism. We are not competing because of scarce resources; we are competing because of a monopoly currency system that requires us to pay back more money than we borrowed. This means taking it from someone else who will then be unable to pay their debts, or growing the economy infinitely on a planet with finite space and in a civilization with finite attention.

We must recognize the tech billionaire who has enough money and sovereignty to build a private space program through which to secure his own safe passage away from the rest of us as the loser who has squandered his opportunity for community and solidarity, not the winner who doesn’t need it.

That’s why I’m less interested in changing the content of our economic story than its structure. By abandoning the premise of capitalism, central currency, and corporatism, we are freed from the dominant heroic narrative shape of winning, itself. Whether it’s conquering the enemy, reaching salvation, or surviving the apocalypse — it’s always a question of how much do we need to do to get to the end, when we don’t have to do anything, anymore? For most of us, this comes down to how much money do we need to earn so that we can retire and live off the winnings?

This is understandable, because we live in a society structured around the idea that no one is going to take care of us when we are old and incapable of taking care of ourselves. We have to make enough to last us through those final decades. But what other creature in the known universe attempts to store up enough food to then live off that food until they die? It sounds insane, because it is. But that’s where this myth of accumulated individual wealth has brought us. It’s all capital. There is only growth, and never any flow.

This is the myth that impedes equitable enterprise, anywhere you look. It’s the reason why capital gains are rewarded with low taxes, while income and earnings are taxed high. It’s why philanthropists are happy to give millions of dollars for a new building (with their name on it), but reluctant to pay a few thousand to keep one running. Again, this is why we simply must transition from winning to sustainability, victory to nurture, growth to flow, individuality to collectivism, and competition to cooperation. And we can do this if we denaturalize the systems that taught us the wrong stories, learn that this is not nature, but an operating system invented by selfish monarchs in the 12th and 13th century, who have long since left the building.

As we move to an economy characterized less by the IPO than the Rolling Debt Jubilee, we need to help people increase their tolerance for a story that never ends. We don’t “win” our independence but instead celebrate our ongoing interdependence. We accept that helping and receiving help from our neighbors may just be the way life well lived works.

We don’t ever reach the Omega point. We don’t ever see God, ring the bell, sell the farm, or make that first billion dollars. But instead, we get to play what James Carse called the “infinite game.” We don’t play to win because that ends the game. Instead, we invent new ways to keep the game going for as long as possible.

I still regularly think about the summer I went to Rome after my freshman year in college; I walked around the city at night and saw the people out on their stoops and in the street, and I had never seen anything quite like it: three or four different generations of people all hanging out together in the evening. There were teenagers making out, men gambling with dice, old ladies laughing and yelling at everybody while taking care of people’s babies…. It was a community of nurture where there was simply nowhere anyone had to go, or anything to accomplish. It’s not that there was nowhere to go; it’s that they were already in the place they wanted to be, just doing their thing, in front of each other. There was a sense of play, but also of limits, and accountability. Everyone was bearing witness to everyone else.

Contrary to the anonymity that characterizes it today, I think that the digital media environment gives us an opportunity to retrieve some of this sensibility in a real way. Digital technology is encouraging responsibility and accountability in ways that we’ve never seen before. In the primitive sense, this would mean cancel culture online, where everything everyone said is retrievable and potential grounds for condemnation. That’s a simple form of accountability. And from the Right, “accountability” now takes the form of a sovereignty and IP rights and owning our own words. We have proof of ownership, and the ability to do our “own research.”

But on a deeper level, I’m thinking this sense of responsibility for one another. The television media environment taught us something else. Marlo Thomas Free to Be, You and Me, and Oprah Winfrey, and even Rodney King taught us we should “all get along.” We can all be friends. Hands across the world. Friendship became the prerequisite to solidarity. But the digital environment is different.

Responsibility can exist independently of friendship, or even liking someone. As philosophy professor Sarah Pessin explains it, our sense of responsibility for others comes from a very different place than affinity or friendship. We can, in her words, “hate and protect.” Your responsibility for the other transcends liking them. This is the “social” that Marx was talking about. We work together. We are not social because I want to play cards or make love with you. We are socializing because we are enacting a responsibility for one another. It’s a stewardship of one another that activates the potential for the stewardship of oneself.

That’s what, in turn, can experientially engender a stewardship for the planet and engage is in a new felt narrative of equitable enterprise. Enterprise means bringing that collective sensibility to bear — that responsibility for one another, and recognition of every possible externality of harm to others, as well. It’s a fundamentally different understanding and relationship to business than the one we’ve been using up until now, which has been characterized by winning and isolating and never having to work again. Instead, we right now and in the moment and without preconditions accept that we are already in the infinite circle. Or, better, on the spiral toward incremental improvement — yet motivated by a sense of accountability and responsibility for our actions and their impact on everyone else.

Because that “everyone else” is still just us.