As every good cook knows, one’s method of production affects the nature of the outcome. In short, how you make your food, matters. In much the same way, the production methods we base our society on affect our quality of life. Recently, with the bitter after-taste of the financial crisis still in their mouths, an increasing number of citizens of the industrialized world have begun to take a closer look at just what is going on in the kitchen.
Our means of production of wealth, our kitchen, if you will, is capitalism, which, according to Wikipedia, is an economic system “generally considered to favor private ownership of the means of production”: this is my kitchen not yours, pay me if you want to use it, or come work in my kitchen. The thing with capitalism is that it demands economies of scale and concentration of capital: really big kitchens make more food and buy more kitchens to make more food and buy more kitchens… You get the idea. This necessarily leaves some people with no kitchen and no food (i.e. no means of production of wealth and no wealth). The opposite of capitalism is communism: the state kitchen. A bit like the school canteen, but worse, that’s an alternative I’d rather avoid.
Three Acres and A Cow
In a powerful paradigm shift from the capitalist v communist duality, there emerges a third way. It’s nothing new, two papal encyclicals first came up with the idea in the early 20th century, it later became know as Distributism, I call it the third kitchen. It’s the idea is that every person can earn a living through access to the means of production (capital, tools, land or knowledge for example). One english catholic, G. K. Chesterton came up with a slogan “Three acres and a cow”, which pretty much sums it up. The philosophical idea behind it is elegantly expressed by a Chinese maxim: “Give someone a fish and you feed him for a day; teach the person to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.
The idea that having economic activity distributed, or decentralized, among many different actors is desirable, also turns up in US & European anti-trust legislation, which is designed to prevent monopolies and excessive concentration of capital (or ownership) in a market. Note to policy makers: you did a bad job there.
Distributism is the New Black
Today, along with skinny jeans and Ray-Bans, the third kitchen is in. What’s more, this time around, it’s is packing some power, namely a widely adopted technical standard, enabling limitless realtime information exchange AKA The Internet. The Internet is enabling the rapid development of third kitchens all over the world: cooperative kitchens, peer-to-peer kitchens, collaborative kitchens, shared kitchens, crowd-funded kitchens, even distributed kitchens. The Internet is creating new ways to mutualize production resources, effectively distributing wealth in a way that capitalism and communism failed to do. For example, you no longer need to buy a car to get to work everyday, you can book a ride in someone else’s thanks to a ride-sharing site. If your cooking (ie. wealth production activity) needs you to drive a vehicle, you can rent someone else’s on a car-sharing site or buy one yourself and rent it out to others to cover the cost. Result: car budget goes into kids eduction, wife’s small business venture, buying 3 acres and a cow, fishing tackle… Again, you get the picture.
Trend-spotting: Factories So Last Season
Looking further into the future, it’s possible that behemouth factories, churning out massive quantities of consumer goods through heavy, capital based supply chains, will be a thing of the past. Equipped locally, or even individually with a 3D printer, we will produce necessary consumer goods on demand, simply by downloading common property designs & printing. Et voila, industry @home! The Economist special report on what is being called The Third Industrial Revolution highlights the social impact of this technology: “Ford needed heaps of capital to build his colossal River Rouge factory; his modern equivalent can start with little besides a laptop and a hunger to invent.“
Two Big Bad Assumptions
Michel Bauwens, founder of the Peer-to- Peer Foundation believes that this type of production, which is in essence horizontal, challenges the most basic tenants of our current system, in essence vertical. He also notes that the vertical system, whereby capital accumulates at the top is based on two big bad assumptions, making it unsustainable, and destined to be replaced by the horizontal model. In his own words, in a recent piece for Al Jazeera: ”Our current system is based on the belief of infinite growth and the endless availability of resources, despite the fact that we live on a finite planet. Let’s call this pseudo-abundance. The system also holds that innovations should be privatised and only available by permission or for a hefty price, making sharing of knowledge and culture a crime, Let’s call this enforced artificial scarcity.
Last night, at a conference hosted by the WWF in Paris, I heard @MBauwens argue for the mutualising of knowledge and tangible resources as a viable alternative to top-down capitalism. Indeed, it seems clear that if we want to change the world we live in, we should have a look at how our kitchens work, because how you make stuff, matters.