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Stationary Social Systems as a Dread from the Past: What Is Needed to Make Them an Attractive Future?

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When you pump a lot of energy into a system, it is going to accelerate. This not only holds true for physical systems, it also holds true for social systems. If a substantial part of this energy is withdrawn (as may be expected to happen in the next decades), the system will slow down. For many, this will be a great relief. But the system may also freeze to a very unpleasant state.

If we look at history, economically stationary, complex social systems tended to be very hierarchical and effective in defending themselves against any kind of innovation. I view this in the context of evolutionary mechanisms: competition in a stationary system produces zero-sum games. The slightest gain of any one is in the end at the expense of some other. Thus, whoever makes a move quickly gets discouraged. We can still see this phenomenon in many contemporary farming villages: in spite of thorough facilitation of participatory processes by researchers, the local population often refuses collaboration with their neighbors, even if they would also benefit. Never allow the slightest benefit for any neighbor, or in the end, your children and grandchildren will have to pay the price—this seems to be the lesson learned and deeply internalized throughout a long history.

How can this be plausibly featured otherwise? Some answers:

  • multidimensionality of rewards and non-collinearity of hierarchical orders
  • variability across time (cyclicity)
  • a reliable social safety net

One of the key problems of monetary rewards is their convertibility into most other kinds of reward. You can, to a certain degree at least, buy power; you can buy knowledge, social relations, and affections, health, and beauty. (Among the very few things you cannot buy are youth and a different life history!) It would be interesting to compare conversion factors (or, if you will, elasticities): how well can you, say, convert good health and beauty into money, and how well does it work the other way around? Thus, one of the key measures ought to be reducing the convertibility of money. In our societies already now a number of such measures are in place: against political corruption; in favor of the economic independence of media; in favor of free supply of health and education services; in favor of marriage by love, not income; and against the sale of one’s children. Still, as the social system theorist Niklas Luhman said, money is the most fluid of all communication media, and the stronger it is culturally, the more rewards become one-dimensional, and hierarchical orders become collinear. Finally, it leads to plutocracy. Cultural stigmatization of maximization of profit or money income—can this be attained? Maybe in present day, functionally differentiated society, existing hierarchical orders are not as collinear as they used to be in agrarian societies, but there is still a long way to go to make them more independent from one another and thus open up mobility choices that do not depend on overall economic growth.

The faces on American currencyVariability across time is another precondition to gain life satisfaction under stationary conditions. There are good years and bad years, good and bad moments in life. What is required is low autocorrelation across time—if one is badly off now, this should not predict that one will be badly off tomorrow. Tolerating bad times and still creating a meaningful life without panicking depends strongly on condition number three: the existence of a collective social safety net. Otherwise, one needs to return to metaphysics, seeking to gain justice and happiness in an afterlife.

So finally, condition number three needs to be there: a reliable social safety net, a guarantee of basic need satisfaction. If people can seriously trust that whatever happens, they will never fall below a certain threshold; they may risk change and enjoy it. They may allow others to win, and trust that who wins will be up to them next time. They can seek the rewards that are available and attractive to them now—and still believe the future may look different.

It is, after all, much easier to imagine that conditions without continuous economic growth would be pleasant and interesting to live in than to imagine how to bring them about. If external constraints, such as energy or resource scarcity, were what made it much easier and more rewarding to engage in social life, communication, and cultural activities than in building edifices and accumulating physical property, an attractive society might emerge. But if the limiting factors must be continuous political constraints, planning, and decision-making, then the situation would be very demanding for any system of governance and possibly not compatible with liberal democracy. At present, we are working hard to provoke those external constraints while we keep denying they could ever hit us. Thus, we might maneuver ourselves into a situation in which we have no choice—and take this as a relief.


Image Credit

“You’re probably wondering why I called this meeting” by frankieleon (CC BY 2.0)

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  • Marina Fischer-Kowalski

    Marina Fischer-Kowalski Ph.D. in sociology, is a professor at the Alpen-Adria University and founder of the Vienna based Institute of Social Ecology. Currently, she is Vice President of the European and president-elect of the International Society for Ecological Economics. Her key research interest is Social Metabolism.

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