Where there’s a will – there’s a relative – Ricky Gervais
The answer to this question is short, it seems. Groups fight over access to resources. And that’s it.
It turns out that I had answered this question a few posts ago when speculating about genocide. Apes are the only creatures, it seems, that will wipe out all members of another tribe. And they usually come into conflict in the wild when they are competing for control of territory, at which point they first try and intimidate the other group and then fight and the winners finish the job.
This happens with humans as well and was demonstrated experimentally using a famous study called the “Robbers Cave Experiment” from the 1950s, which has its problems, but is seen a seminal piece of research into “realistic conflict theory”. In this experiment boys were put into two groups and competed against each other in tasks and games, effectively trying to get resources and eventually ended up conflicting with each other. When the groups were mixed and had to work together the conflict reduced. It’s a sort of real life “Lord of the Flies” story, but the research is flawed and the researchers tried to manipulate the situation and they hadn’t quite invented ethics yet.
But in addition to the research you have history and how groups have treated each other. In every nation, every continent, there are stories of oppression and conflict and violence and retaliation and it still goes on now. You just have to open the newspaper or look at any news outlet’s home page. When you realize this fact you start to see it everywhere.
It seems hard wired into us as apes. You’ll get it at home as your children go to war over the last sausage. The tears, the protestations.
Competition over scarce resources seems straightforward enough through this lens. Control over land and minerals and water – that sort of stuff comes down to pretty binary choices. I have it or you have it and if you have it and I want it then I have to fight you and win. This mentality is our evolutionary heritage, part of the writing of our brain, burned into our neural channels. But is it still relevant – is it the way we should think about the things we have?
Well, that’s clearly not the case if you give it a minute’s consideration. We’ve created an economic system where we’ve replaced real scarcity with artificial scarcity in many situations. Take diamonds, for example. Real diamonds are not scarce, but the people who control the diamond mines, I understand, lock them away so that there is a market for expensive shiny rocks. Shiny rocks that, by the way, you can now make in a lab.
There is an inherent conflict between the genetic or biological way we think and the reality of the world around us and the possibilities we can open up by using those same biological brains. Take farming, for example. Good quality growing land is clearly an asset – the more land you have the more you can farm, right? So you would go to war over farmland, no? Well, not any more because we first know how to produce more food than ever out of the same amount of land and because farming is changing and you have things like vertical farms. If we don’t go back to work in office buildings you could convert those into vertical farms and end up having city centres converted into food production centres.
The thing that resolves most conflict around resources has been the creation of a market system. Things are priced to match buyers and sellers and you find that the things you think will give you control end up being a commodity and producers of a commodity actually end up having very little control over anything. The market system is probably the one thing that has really defused global conflict. Take power, for example. Having electric power literally meant having power – but I’ve been close to power markets for a long time and I can tell you that it’s the market that has the power, not the producer or the consumer. James Carville, a democratic political advisor once said, “I used to think that if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or as a .400 baseball hitter. But now I would like to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.” And what is the market but the combined decisions of many people deciding whether to buy or sell?
So, if you want to resolve conflict around scarce resources at any level create a market, create something that enables you to work out an exchange of value and you will find that many problems can be resolved without resorting to conflict.
Then there’s the other big category of invented conflict around intellectual property. Intellectual property is a construct, a creation that puts a fence around something there is not much point in fencing. Copyright laws and other such things. The point is to create a market but these resources are not scarce in the sense that lithium is scarce. These words I’m writing, for example, are copyrighted the instant I fix them in a medium. While they are ideas in my head they have no value but once this sentence is written in this form you can’t copy it without breaking the law. But, of course, unlike a kilo of lithium that you can have or I can have, you can read these words I’ve written and I’ve lost nothing – I still have them as well.
Now, if you take my words and post them on your blog or publish them as your own, if you sell them and make money – then I have a variety of means to do something about that. Because, after all, what’s the point in doing something if you don’t benefit from it in some way or someone else steals everything you have?
Now this setup creates conflict because that barrier around something that’s so easy to copy and steal leads to the owners of IP fighting those people who can copy and share very easily. And you can see that with the music, software, book and film industries – all those organisations that have an interest in the manufacture, distribution and control of intellectual property. The conflict there is being addressed in two ways – ever stronger controls over material through things like DRM and streaming sites and a response by creators to move to a Pay What You Can (PWYC) model. Increasing numbers of authors simply release their material on all the platforms out there, free and non-free and people choose what they want. Increasingly you have the choice to read something and then buy it if you want to have a copy. And that’s perhaps the way that works best for creators – to have a dedicated fan base that supports them but of course the armies of helpers and distributors and the machinery that operated to keep the old system in place is no longer needed.
So, if you’re trying to build a modern community what should you do to reduce conflict?
The first thing, I think, is to share everything without restriction. The philosophies of the Free Software Foundation, do this in a legal way, and they protect your freedoms to use software, as do variations like Creative Commons. These CopyLeft provisions allow you to remove scarcity and groups that want control can fork material, take it and do it their way and that’s their right. This deals with intellectual property and I think it’s a scary thing for companies. Companies still imagine that you hire people and they make something and then you own that thing. But these days you really should think of a company simply as a way to channel value to a customer in a way the individuals involved couldn’t do by themselves. If they could they would without bothering with the whole company as an intermediary. So, you need to make it worthwhile for those individuals to participate by making the group a welcoming and inclusive place. That means you should perhaps think more about cooperatives and shared ownership structures rather than control of resource structures. After all, you can’t take it with you so wouldn’t it be better to spend your life working with people you “like, admire and trust?”
The second thing is that when it comes to physical resources create an internal market. Not where resources are allocated based on power and favour but on a market system where there is the possibility to match buyers and sellers and let people make their own decisions.
I think we’ll explore some of these ideas in the next post.