Last night I started watching a TV series called Mr. Robot. It’s centered around this introvert hacker who bands together with a group of digital anarchists to bring down the stronghold that the corporate-financial system has on the world. Money means slavery, so lack thereof must mean freedom. Seems legit, right?
I have seen a similar concept in the movie called In Time, only there the currency is not the dollar, euro, pound or yen, but the second. Upon coming of age, everyone got a time budget which they got to invest, spend, and save. Going under no longer meant one could file for personal bankruptcy, but that one become worm food. Of course, the rich were practically immortal and the poor died at 25 (not unlike the real world). And unsurprisingly, Justin Timberlake and 13 save the day by busting into time banks and redistributing wealth equally. How predictably Robin Hood-ish!
From the time of The Great Depression and Bonnie and Clyde, the concept of wealth redistribution became repeatedly and arguably increasingly seductive to the capitalist world, especially in times of recession when the lower and middle classes struggled to stay afloat or even alive. And it becomes a popular concept that partial or complete wealth and/or income redistribution is the answer to society’s problems. Of course, the blind majority who becomes fond of these concepts bears no thought towards its disastrous previous implementations in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and throughout the communist block.
There is no argument that income inequality in the world and even in the so-called civilized world has reached unprecedented and borderline dysfunctional heights.
However, no amount of frustration with the status quo of the financial system or the economy justifies the toppling of corporations or the meltdown of financial markets as the right solution. The problem with TV or cinema production such as Mr. Robot or In Time is that they encourage the simplistic, almost idiotic belief that the opposite or the absence of a sub-optimal, corrupted system (such as state-controlled currency) is necessarily better or even the best possible solution.
Injecting such ideas into the public mind severs as some sort of psychological pressure-valve or mental pain-killer:
“Oh those corporate fat cats hold the world enslaved in debt for their perpetual profit! The solution is to take them down, together with the credit markets and currency exchanges.”
Now I understand why it is tempting to start thinking that some Robin Hood hacker will cyber-attack financial data centers and wipe away everyone’s debt. It’s tempting because it is an easy fantasy. It’s a happy place to imagine for the masses maxed out on their credit cards.
It is also stupid.
Because wiping away someone’s debt also means wiping away someone else asset or investment. And the indiscriminate nature of the word “wiping” makes no guarantee that the super-rich would suffer and the less-fortunate would profit. Quite the opposite, wiping away your debt would also mean wiping away someone’s uncle deposit or some poor couple’s savings for a postponed honeymoon.
The exact of kind shortsightedness that makes people think that taking down the banking systems means wealth for the poor, punishment for the wealthy and justice for all is the mentality that makes the rich want to be richer at any cost. The truth is that each of us will be biased in favor of the economic or political systems which favors our class the most in this moment. But not having perspective on the long run and the perspective to see other people’s situations/context is both the origin of some’s sinking in debt and others’ being suffocated by greed.
The opposite of being controlled (i.e. by the government, financial systems, big corporations and so on) is not being free. It’s chaos.
The opposite of income inequality isn’t sudden wealth redistribution. It’s improving the dynamics of future income, so that the financial bloodstream is directed to the vital parts of the system, which create long-term value and well-being.
And most definitely, the answer to a corrupt system isn’t taking down the system and rolling society back to the Wild West or the Middle Ages. That would be like saying the treatment for a sick patient is euthanasia. The less thrilling, unexciting, somewhat boring, hard, yet correct solution is diagnosing the system and improving it from where it stands, with lessons learned from where it has been.
Concretely, in spite of the evil corporations and corrupt politicians and incompetent governments, on an individual scale we can try:
- Learning how the world actually works
- Learning discipline (of savings, managing our costs and limiting spending)
- Teaching others discipline and alternative perspectives
- Not wasting too much time with worthless entertainment
- Focusing at least once in a while at what we can change about ourselves instead of complaining about others
- Optimizing what we give back to society (as a long term investment, as opposed to thinking about what we can profit from on the short term)
- Leaving some buffers/reserves for later (time buffers, money buffers, attention span buffers)
- Understanding how and why things work like they do (including banks, currency, governments)
- Avoiding debt instead of fantasizing about having some divine force relieve us from it
Of course, most of these hands-on, step-by-step, do-it-yourself, suffer-now-profit-later approaches are not by far interesting enough for a movie, let alone 12 episodes of a TV series. Hacking banking servers, running denial-of-service attacks on the stock markets, being a modern day Robin Hood armed with a Mac and shielded with hooding, plunging the world back into chaos one stock at a time – YEAH!, that’s almost as entertaining as this reality show.
As a conclusion, I reserve the right not be impressed by the whole FSociety concept. Because usually, “screw everything” is not a better solution that any solution.
Also, optima are rarely found at extremes.