This is the irregular newsletter from Pete Ashton which you subscribed to at some point.
I'm trying someting new, again, because that's what we do here. Notes from Pete is now a section of my blog where I write a short-ish response to something I've read or watched. I try and have it done within an hour, ideally less, and get it out right away.
This newsletter will bring the week's notes together in a massive, or not so massive, bundle for you to enjoy over the weekend.
If you want to save or share any particular note, click on its title to take you to the blog.
Updates about my arting life will appear here. There are none this week.
This will last as long as it lasts and when it stops that will be the end of Season 2. Season 3 will be something else. (Season 1 was all that stuff I sent before).
‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ is one of those terms that is often taken at face-value and assumed to be true. Humans, when left to their own devices, will consume and exploit everything they can until there is nothing left and they all die. The theory was devised by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968 and, in my experience anyway, is most often employed when moaning about littering.
Around the same time Hardin was writing that “ruin is the destination toward which all men rush”, Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist, was seeing the opposite in her work. When faced with scarcity, humans devised systems of mutual benefit to manage those resources, subject to certain conditions.
The features of successful systems, Ostrom and her colleagues found, include clear boundaries (the ‘community’ doing the managing must be well-defined); reliable monitoring of the shared resource; a reasonable balance of costs and benefits for participants; a predictable process for the fast and fair resolution of conflicts; an escalating series of punishments for cheaters; and good relationships between the community and other layers of authority, from household heads to international institutions.
This feature on Ostrom goes into some detail on her work and case studies from the world of conservation. There’s an emphasis on complexity and the unique and variable situations that she studies, and the struggle of scaling up to national and international levels, but above all there’s a repudiation of the doom-laden Tragedy myth, which is nice to see.
Nice observation in Jaymo’s 301-second podcast (with transcript for those can’t be dealing with podcasts) that the term the inmates have taken over the asylum assumes that this would be a bad thing and that the people previously running the asylum were doing a good job. It usually crops up when there’s some kind of regime change where people usually found at the bottom of the organisational chart find themselves at the top, and those with a vested interest in the old status quo can’t quite get their heads around it.
What the phrase doesn’t allow for is the notion that the people who usually end up running things, at least a middle-management level, might not be very good at it. Anyone who’s worked for some kind of big org will have experienced the soul-crushing realisation that someone up the hierarchy from them is at best incompetent and at worst a raging sociopath, and there’s nothing you can do about it except leave.
Plenty more observations and links at the link.
Oikos, from the Greek for ‘household’, is a new term to me, and it’s made up of letters arranged in such a way that it refuses to stick in my brain, so I’m having a bit of trouble getting my head around it, but I’m definitely intrigued.
Matt Webb goes into some detail as to why it interests him, because the traditional political compass doesn’t seem to work for today’s world. (Sidenote - the political compass is another thing that one might assume has been around forever but which is relatively recent, being launched in 2001).
Oikos seems to be the position that it’s morally OK to favour blood relatives, or more broadly “people like me”. A Polis view is the more traditional “everyone is equal and should be treated equally”. Oikos is also called “Mafia logic” and from the perspective of the left it is generally associated with bad things and bad people. Trump is oikos all the way, but it also crops up in more mainstream conservative thought. “There is no such thing [as society]. There are individual men and women and there are families” as Mr Thatcher famously said. And while I might fundamentally disagree with her, she wasn’t talking about running a kleptocracy, simply that “people look to themselves first” before thinking about the wider society.
What interests me about this is how it might apply to co-operatives and other non-hierarchical member-run organisations. Are the co-operative values and principles compatible with an oikos view? Matt is at pains to stress oikos is not necessarily a bad thing:
Community is an oikos value! Neighbourhood is an oikos value! Closing the streets to city traffic so kids can play, that’s an oikos value! Mutuality and cooperative organisations… traditionally left wing, but elements of oikos there.
I’m not sure. Co-ops are an interesting mix of broadly left-ist ideas of community and equality, but contained within a membership structure which by definition creates a them-and-us dynamic. A co-op can be quite socialist in how it operates, but from what I can see there’s no requirement to be. Indeed, there is a Conservative Co-operative movement, set up by Tory MP Jesse Norman who is certainly not some wet centrist, as an adjunct to Cameron’s Big Society idea, though it seems to have faded out in 2014. Housing co-operatives, usually associated with affordable housing in the UK, run luxury apartments for the rich in New York, which always blows my mind. I wonder if they subscribe to the co-op values?
Art my co-op, Loaf, we spend a reasonable amount of time thinking about our values, why we do things they way we do. Our primary goal, it’s fair to say, is to provide stable long term employment on a living way to our nine members, being ourselves. We have many many other goals, but that’s the primary one, because without that we’d be unable to do much else. Are we using an oikos value to create a platform for non-oikos activity? Does that even make sense?
Charity begins at home. Think global, act local.
On a personal level I’ve never been that bothered about blood family ties. They’re important, I guess, but only because they trigger a primal psychological connection and that mostly comes from spending a lot of time with them as a child. Adopted kids have the same thing, so family more about socialisation than genetics, I guess
Even so, the idea that one person is more important than another simply because I have a familial connection to them is woefully subjective and a terrible way to run a society. It might work on a small scale, giving us the bonds we need to survive, but it’s objectively meaningless. It’s like opinions and beliefs - I have them and I rely on them to navigate, but they don’t matter as much as knowledge and wisdom.
Oikos is how you get through the day, but it’s a terrible way to run the world.
(Conclusions pending, more pondering required)
One lockdown phenomena I've seen very little written about was the rapid spread of trampolines across suburbia. From my back garden there were four within hearing range, sproinging away and very occasionally falling into glorious synchronisation as eight small feet hit the springs at exactly the same time, before drifting back to their demented rhythm.
Jeremy Wilson noticed it, because he was one of the parents who bought a trampoline to tire out his kids while he tried to get some work done. His article, Every Child on their Own Trampoline, uses this to explore how consumerism under capitalism has affected how children play and, by extension, how we socialise. "Every family has its own trampoline. Meanwhile, the playground round the corner falls apart quietly."
Capitalism pushes us towards private affluence. We aspire to acquire our own things. Shared things are seen as second best, something of an inconvenience. Politics responds accordingly, prioritising economic growth and 'more money in your pocket', rather than shared goods and services. So everyone has their own lawnmower while the grass grows long in the park. People get their own exercise bikes or rowing machines, and the gym at the local leisure centre starts to look tired and under-funded. The wealthy pay for childcare or hire a nanny, but the early years nursery closes down.
As a Gen-X kid who grew up in the 80s, my adult life often feels like an endless de-programming exercise, a battle between my desire to be a better person living in a better world (by some definition of "better") and the self-centred Oikos ideology that infested the psyche of the English under Thatcherism.
Which is to say I'm still addicted to owning stuff. I want my own books, my own tools. Rationally I want to be part of a library or a tool-sharing club. Rationally I don't need my own circular saw. But emotionally I like having it there.
We don't use the car that much, maybe once or twice a week to go shopping with a trip out of town to a farm for hay every month or so. A car-sharing service would make much more sense, but there's a resistance to not having our own car that is weirdly strong. (And I should add I have no interest in or love for cars and don't really enjoy driving.)
I'm thinking, as one often does, of Mark Fisher's concept of Capitalist Realism, the "widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it". If, like me, you were born in the 1970s and only really starting thinking about how the world works in the 1980s, then challenging the status quo is very hard indeed, particularly on an emotional level.
We could have a fucking awesome communal trampoline in the park, managed and maintained by the council, funded by taxation and available to all. But that's impossible, so every back garden has a trampoline.
Thanks for reading! Do send me notes on my notes and I'll see you next week.