The Past and the Future

Imagine that the time is somewhere in the 12th or 13th century in feudal Europe. You are a traveler from the future, coming into that time. Your base is, perhaps, the late 19th century. You are meeting with people of different social locations, and your task is to introduce them to the absolutely revolutionary and radical idea that the world could be organized on the principle of competition and merit.

In case you are not familiar with medieval history, the people you would be talking with in this imaginary scenario knew a different sort of arrangement. In their world, whatever your station in life was when you were born determined to an extremely high degree what your life would look like. The idea that one could end up in different social locations would have been unimaginable to them. They could likely imagine that for a few rare and exceptional situations, not as an organizing principle.

In response to your proposal they would pooh pooh you, they would tell you that you were naïve or dangerous or both. They would tell you that no one would ever do anything if they weren’t compelled to do it based on the strong coercive structures that existed at the time on all levels. Chaos would ensue, nothing would get done, and expertise would get lost. They would dismiss you and ignore you.

And yet that exact transformation happened. The industrial revolution and the political revolutions that arose in tandem with it created an entirely different social order which would have been impossible for our ancestors to fathom.

I truly invite you to stretch and imagine what it would be like to live in that world and have someone come and tell you that something else is possible.

This is exactly what happens these days when I attempt to invite people into my vivid picture of a fully collaborative world order based on need satisfaction and willingness, without external incentives, without money, without exchange, and without coercion.

I am told, repeatedly, that my vision goes against human nature. That no one would do anything without external incentives in the form of money. That competition is what drives excellence and that generosity and kindness are not sufficient to run the world.

A fully collaborative society is just as unthinkable in a world based on competition as competition was for an authority-based society.

Perhaps it is, after all, possible to create a collaborative future?

Let’s imagine it for a moment, even if you think it’s impossible. Let’s imagine that we can create social structures and institutions organized around caring for everyone’s needs through willing collaboration. To be able to imagine this would require some understanding of human needs and how they differ from the almost infinite range of wishes, strategies, whims, objects, relationships, and anything else we have devised to satisfy those needs. Quite simply, needs are anything required for a human being to have a truly satisfying life. This includes physical needs, emotional/psychological needs, relational needs, social/communal needs, and spiritual needs. This understanding of needs follows the trailblazing work of Marshall Rosenberg, who came forth with the radical proposal of putting human needs at the center, more so than any other aspect of human life.[1]

With this understanding of human needs, imagine putting human needs at the center, and organizing life around them. Feel your way into what it would be like to have an economy in which the needs of all were the driving force. No longer would we be focused on profit. Instead, we would be, collectively, prioritizing attending to everyone’s needs, including the natural world. What if, for example, instead of investing in technologies of destruction we would invest in figuring out how to feed all of us without destroying the biosphere?

If we focus on need satisfaction then leaders would act as servants, and decision-making would be based on dialogue, full willingness, and participation. Can you imagine how much more joy and willingness everyone would have to get up in the morning and go to work if everyone knew that their needs mattered, that their voice and opinions counted, and that their concerns would be taken seriously? What would it be like if leaders saw themselves as guiding a decision-making process rather than the ones making the decisions?

If we truly embraced human needs as the primary organizing principle, then we would radically change the way we treat each other and our children. No one would be controlled, manipulated, coerced, shamed, or guilt tripped. We would trust that nurturing all of our needs and supporting each other in fulfilling our dreams would lead to peaceful sharing of resources and to productive use of conflicts. All our human relationships would be based on autonomy and interdependence.

Under such conditions, human beings can grow up to be people who are able to balance their well-being with that of others and of the planet spontaneously and gracefully. Imagine what that would be like. If it were possible, wouldn’t you love to live in a world where all of us embrace giving without receiving and receiving without giving? Can you imagine what it would be like to trust that there is sufficiency of resources and that we have enough collaborative and imaginative problem-solving to allow us to let go of attachment to outcome? Or how much less stress we would have if we can all celebrate and mourn the mysterious and unpredictable flow of life with birth, growth, death, and decay?

Yes, I know we have been told that such a life is impossible; that our human nature is to hoard, to be suspicious, to only look out for ourselves and perhaps our immediate family and friends; that we can only be motivated through reward and punishment; that our needs are ultimately insatiable; and that war is inevitable.

This grim picture, resting on a fundamental despair about who we are and what life is about, has been the dominant thread for millennia in the Western world. It isn’t the only picture possible. We try to protect children from reality for as many years as we can, because we know that their picture of life is not so grim and we want them to hold on to it even as we think of them as naïve. Are they? Is it possible that our children know better than adults?

My mother still remembers her utter astonishment when I asked her, at five: “Why is it that we have to pay money to get our groceries? Why can’t we just go into the store, get what we need, and go home? Why can’t everyone just get what they need? Why do we need money?” My mother had no response that satisfied me, and neither has anyone since. I grew up bewildered by the discipline of economics. Something never computed for me, not even after I read Samuelson’s infamous Macroeconomics – the classic textbook still used in universities – and passed an advanced placement exam with flying colors in my early 30s. I understood the equations. I could manipulate the numbers and produce the desired results. None of that presented any challenge to me. It just never made sense.

I was 40 when the lightning bolt struck and I got it. It was so simple and so painful: the field of economics as we know it is defined by scarcity. So much so, that many sources define economics as the study of the allocation of scarce resources. Scarcity is built into the field: whatever is not scarce is not included. Since I didn’t share in the assumption of scarcity, everything that followed from it was puzzling to me.

The dream of a moneyless society I have carried since being a child has never left me. I still trust that there can be enough resources for everyone’s basic needs; that there can be enough willingness to do all that needs doing without coercion; that there can be enough love and understanding to resolve all conflicts; and that there can be enough creativity and goodwill to work out a global system of resource allocation and coordination that is neither market-based nor centrally planned, and is instead based on voluntary participation.

I am, indeed, called naïve, idealistic, utopian.

Still, I ask: regardless of how likely you believe a collaborative future is, or how impossible you think that such a vision is, wouldn’t you rather live in such a world than the one we have?


[1] A similar approach, from a different perspective, has been proposed by economist Manfred Max-Neef.


This article is a passage from the book “Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Transforming the Legacy of Separation into a Future of Collaboration” by Miki Kashtan (Editors note).