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From artificial scarcity to ecologies of abundant care

From artificial scarcity to ecologies of abundant care

mutual aid

Autists learn and play differently, because our senses work differently, and because we make sense of the world in different ways. Our sensory profiles don’t allow us to push cognitive dissonance out of conscious awareness. We feel and know that a way of life that traumatises large segments of the population and the non-human world does not make any sense. We need to slow down, to the relational speed of life.

Less WEIRD education

The best way to understand human capabilities and ways of being is to observe and learn from young children from non-WEIRD cultures.

Learning : the ability to sense and comprehend commonalities and variabilities via the embodied experience that is available to us via our senses.

By being grounded in the innate human ability to make sense of sensory inputs this basic definition of learning is not limited to humans and avoids obvious cultural bias. The following presentation by Prof Jinan KB makes a whole number of further observations, and is relevant to anyone involved in education:

Jinan KB de-emphasises the role of written linear language and instead emphasises learning and sense making by direct observation and sensory experience. This bottom up approach to culture co-creation stands in contrast to the top-down approach to cultural indoctrination that characterises the institutions and paradigmatic inertia of powered-up empires. The top-down approach has been meticulously analysed and described by Niklas Luhman.

Autistic ways of learning

The de-emphasis of language, the focus on sense making by direct observation and sensory experience, and rich mental models of commonalities and variabilities that are not easily expressible in words fits well with the ways in which Autistic people engage with the world.

Also, the notion that the parents primarily have an opportunity to learn from children, and not the other way around, is consistent with the Autistic ways of learning outlined in the communal definition of Autistic ways of being.

Unusual sensitivity profiles allow Autists to identify commonalities and variabilities that escape others. In terms of social interactions we gravitate towards those with compatible sensitivity profiles. Autistic ways of being are no mystery. We are humans with unique qualities and limitations. Like all humans, we are not replaceable cogs, and we are not programmable blank slates either. 

Autists learn and play differently, because our senses work differently, and because we make sense of the world in different ways.

So-called neuronormative children are easily indoctrinated using a top down authoritarian approach. As part of the indoctrination, they learn to suppress their pre/non-linguistic sense making by direct observation, and they learn to suppress the urge to think critically and question abstract cultural constructs that are disconnected from first hand sensory experience. 

Neuronormative children learn to cope with growing levels of cognitive dissonance to the point where cognitive dissonance is experienced as “normality”, i.e. as nothing to worry about.

Autists never become habituated to growing levels of cognitive dissonance. Dis-ease remains part of Autistic conscious experience.

Autistic sensory profiles don’t allow us to push cognitive dissonance out of conscious awareness. Our cognitive load increases. To regain spoons, we need to retreat to a safe space in which we are not exposed to social expectations that trigger cognitive dissonance. Given that Autistic baseline sensitivities diverge from “normality”, the above applies throughout Autistic lives, starting when we are babies. These differences from “normality” lead us down a path of monotropism, which helps us to avoid being continuously overwhelmed. 

Monotropism can be understood as a downstream effect of the ways of learning and playfulness that emerge from unusual sensitivity profiles. 

Hypernormative WEIRD cultures generate much higher levels of stress and cognitive dissonance than small scale indigenous cultures, and this affects Autistic children with unusual sensory profiles more than others.

When an entire society applies an anthropocentric bell curve to define cut-off points for “normality”, and pathologises all those beyond the cut-off points, it choses to no longer learn from Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people. This not only allows cognitive dissonance to grow within society, it also weakens the human cultural immune system, and our collective human ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

WEIRD lack of authenticity

Hans-Georg Moeller’s book on profilicity elaborates in depth how the demands of modernity are in a fundamental conflict with the notion of authenticity, i.e. how cognitive dissonance becomes normalised.

I concur with Hans-Gerog Moeller’s analysis, but I argue that authenticity – and a significant reduction in cognitive dissonance, are available to us if we consciously limit our social sphere to a comprehensible human scale, and focus on nurturing de-powered relationships. 

The cognitive dissonance we experience grows with the number of powered-up relationships we have to endure, and with the extent to which we are exposed to a super-human scale social sphere, i.e. to large anonymous institutions and groups.

Jinan KB’s insights make it obviously that each child is on a unique developmental trajectory that is determined by the environment and a unique sensory profile. This is in stark contrast to the assumed “standard milestones” that WEIRD parents and teachers have come to expect as “normal”. This developmental perspective adds an additional dimension to coherent theories of human ways of being.

Have you ever wondered why storytelling is such a trendy topic? If this question bothers you and makes you uncomfortable, your perspective on human affairs and your cognitive lens is rather unusual. Humans are biased to thinking they understand more than they actually do, and this effect is further amplified by technologies such as the Internet, which connects us to an exponentially growing pool of information.

Storytelling in the age of mass media and social media is linked to the rise of marketing and persuasive writing. Stories are appealing and hold persuasive potential because of their role in cultural transmission is the result of gene-culture co-evolution in tandem with the human capability for symbolic thought and spoken language. In human culture stories are involved in two functions:

  1. Transmission of beliefs that are useful for the members of a group. Shared beliefs are the catalyst for improved collaboration.
  2. Deception in order to protect or gain social status within a group or between groups. In the framework of contemporary competitive economic ideology deception is often referred to as marketing.

Storytelling thus is a key element of cultural evolution. Unfortunately cultural evolution fuelled by storytelling is a terribly slow and shallow form of learning for societies, even though storytelling is an impressively fast way for transmitting beliefs to other individuals.

The extent to which deceptive storytelling is tolerated is influenced by cultural norms, by the effectiveness of institutions and technologies entrusted with the enforcement of cultural norms, and the level of social inequality within a society. Unsurprisingly, the prevalence of psychopathic traits in the upper echelons of the corporate world seems to be between 3% and 21%, much higher than the 1% prevalence in the general population.

The modern WEIRD way of life does not make sense. No anthropocentric civilisation makes any sense. All social power gradients between individuals generate harmful cognitive dissonance, and at larger scales they perpetuate anthropocentric hypernormativity, dehumanisation, warfare, and systemic oppression.

Interrupting, tweaking, lying, exaggerating, silencing, omitting—these little acts become huge fissures in our relationships. This practice dehumanizes, devitalizes, and shreds our deep connections to each other. The delicacy of life on this planet is hanging in the balance.

It happens at home, in our communities, and in the world around us. The infection of this breaking of our together-unity is tearing the fibers of life apart in the way cancer cells tear apart the body’s ability to communicate. It makes the world a place where the only reasonable thing to do is “watch out for number one.”

While it may be a prevailing logic of debating or convincing of others of our position, the art of communication distortion is a dangerous game. It leads to a moment much like the present, when it is impossible to know who is sincere, and what information they base their sincerity upon. Who should you believe? What is left of our communing that is not for sale? A sentence is likely to be worded to evoke particular impressions.

From ‘Communication is sacred’ by Nora Bateson (2024)

The actual effect of the myth of meritocracy, which is used to normalise and rationalise head to head competition, is a consistent bias to over-represent capabilities, and to actively avoid thinking about externalities. 

Conceptualising social power as an addiction provides the majority of the human population with a highly effective bullshit detection tool, capable of eroding the social licence of the toxic institutions and social paradigms that are holding entire societies hostage to decisions made by power drunk addicts.

An alien observer of human societies would probably be amazed that some humans are given a platform for virtually unlimited storytelling at a scale that affects billions and hundreds of millions people, and that delusional and misleading stories are let lose on the population of a species that is the local champion of cultural transmission on this planet. It is time to acknowledge the many ways in which modern WEIRD ways of life traumatise large segments of the population and the non-human world.

Autistic people easily get depressed and develop physical health conditions when having to survive in social environments that deny Autistic authenticity and that continuously expect Autistic people to conform to neuronormative cultural rituals. Sooner or later, unless the Autist is able to shift or change the environmental context, recurring traumatic experiences result in chronic depression and Autistic burnout.

Depowered dialogue

The smallest unit of learning is a feedback loop. Power is the privilege of not needing to learn. The dynamic process of life is best understood in relational terms.

At human scale, all healthy relationships, independently of the level of intimacy, are characterised by the maintenance of de-powered dialogue – by a mutual deep desire to understand a precious living being.

Humans can only comprehend the impact of social agreements up to the limits of human scale. Social agreements that have been arrived at in Open Space and in a process of de-powered dialogue catalyse greater levels of shared understanding and hold great potential for reducing harm.

The language of evolutionary design encapsulates and formalises timeless principles that can be traced back to the earliest rock paintings and diagrammatic representations, which enabled important knowledge to be transmitted reliably in otherwise largely oral human scale cultures over tens of thousands of years.

The human capacity for language and cultural transmission via language does not have to degenerate into a life destroying mono-cult.

By limiting ourselves to human scale, we retain the ability to make sense of life in terms of ecologies of care beyond the human, to nurture shared understanding in depowered dialogue, and to co-ordinate human affairs in Open Space.

De-powered environments in which social power dynamics are not allowed to emerge and escalate reduce uncertainties and related fears, confusion, and doubts.

Slowing down

Many people are stuck in survival mode. We need to slow down, to the relational speed of life.

By definition no one is able to do this in isolation. It also can not be achieved by training. It requires lived experience, imagining alternative de-powered social operating models, and educating ourselves in critical thinking tools and de-powered forms of transdisciplinary collaboration. 

It is interesting to look at the above conversation as a trans-generational dialogue, and recognising the immense value of such dialogues – when the conversation is fully de-powered. Learning is best framed in terms of the new questions, new conceptual blends, and the shared understanding and caring relationships that can only arise in the context of de-powered dialogue.

To avoid tired, simplistic, and polarising political frames, we can describe our overall direction of travel as: From artificial scarcity towards ecologies of abundant care.

Some of us have many years of experience with the art of de-powering. Collectively we need to catalyse these efforts substantially via intersectional solidarity on the margins of society and education as part of the neurodiversity movement. Even over the long-term, the timeless art of de-powering will remain relevant, to clamp down on social power gradients wherever they start to (re)emerge.

Employment

Traditional employment in hierarchically structured organisations is not a viable, healthy, or survivable option for Autistic people, no matter of how the hierarchy of control is framed.

As Harrison Owen and all experienced Open Space facilitators point out again and again, the notion of “being in control”, especially being in control of other people is an anthropocentric delusion.

Life is a self-organising process, and humans thrive in life affirming cultures that acknowledge and actively encourage self-organisation.

The Western notion of the independent individual self is a delusion rooted in the anthropocentric and life denying cultural assumptions of the industrial revolution. Many Autists who opt out of traditional employment to become individually self-employed contractors sooner or later discover that they have simply exchanged one set of problems with another set of problems, within the same life denying wider cultural context.

It strikes me how the entire Autism Industrial Complex seems to be bent on railroading Autistic youngsters and their parents on a track of preparing for employment or various precarious forms of self-employment in roles that suit the established institutional landscape of large anonymous corporations and financial investors. I have yet to see a single piece of mainstream autism research that explicitly explores other, much more life affirming and economic paradigm busting options for Autistic people.

The lived experience of many Autists literally lies outside the mainstream economic paradigm. We live our entire lives beyond the cutoff points of the arbitrary anthropocentric bell curve of “normality” of industrialised civilisation. The social model of disability applies, and it points to the “externalities” of WEIRD cultural bias.

Entrepreneurship & worker co-ops

Many of the challenges Autistic people are facing today are not new. They were obvious to many – if not most – workers in the early days of the industrialisation.

The following Wikipedia definitions provide relevant historic context and point towards alternative social arrangements that work well for many Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people. I have crossed out a few words and highlighted key ideas to reflect some of the thoughts that flowed into the co-creation of the Neurodiventure worker-coop model that the team that I am part of has been using since 2012:

Entrepreneurship is the creation or extraction of economic value in ways that generally entail beyond the minimal amount of risk (assumed by a traditional business), and potentially involving values besides simply economic ones.

An entrepreneur is an individual who creates and/or invests in one or more businesses, bearing most of the risks and enjoying most of the rewards.[1] The process of setting up a business is known as “entrepreneurship”. The entrepreneur is commonly seen as an innovator, a source of new ideas, goods, services, and business/or procedures.

A worker cooperative is a cooperative owned and self-managed by its workers. This control may mean a firm where every worker-owner participates in decision-making in a democratic fashion, or it may refer to one in which management is elected by every worker-owner who each have one vote.

The Wikipedia article on worker co-ops continues:

Worker cooperatives rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution as part of the labour movement. As employment moved to industrial areas and job sectors declined, workers began organizing and controlling businesses for themselves. Worker cooperatives were originally sparked by “critical reaction to industrial capitalism and the excesses of the industrial revolution,” with the first worker owned and managed firm first appearing in England in 1760.[1] Some worker cooperatives were designed to “cope with the evils of unbridled capitalism and the insecurities of wage labor”.[1]

also referencing CICOPA, the International Organisation of Industrial, Artisanal and Service Producers’ Cooperatives, approved by the International Co-operative Alliance General Assembly in September 2005, and the following section on the basic characteristics of workers’ cooperatives:

(1) They have the objective of creating and maintaining sustainable jobs and generating wealth, to improve the quality of life of the worker-members, dignify human work, allow workers’ democratic self-management and promote community and local development.

(2) The free and voluntary membership of their members, in order to contribute with their personal work and economic resources, is conditioned by the existence of workplaces.

(3) As a general rule, work shall be carried out by the members. This implies that the majority of the workers in a given worker cooperative enterprise are members and vice versa.

(4) The worker-members’ relation with their cooperative shall be considered as different from that of conventional wage-based labor and to that of autonomous individual work.

(5) Their internal regulation is formally defined by regimes that are democratically agreed upon and accepted by the worker-members.

(6) They shall be autonomous and independent, before the State and third parties, in their labor relations and management, and in the usage and management of the means of production.[38]

Even though there is no universally accepted definition of a workers’ cooperative, they can be considered to be businesses that make a product or offer a service to sell for profit where the workers are members or worker-owners.

Worker-owners work in the business company, govern it and manage it. Unlike with conventional firms, ownership and decision-making power of a worker cooperative should be vested solely with the worker-owners and ultimate authority rests with the worker-owners as a whole. Worker-owners control the resources of the cooperative and the work process, such as wages or hours of work.

As mentioned above, the majority—if not all—of the workers in a given worker cooperative enterprise are worker-owners, although some casual or wage workers may be employed with whom profits and decision making are not necessarily shared equally. Workers also often undergo a trial or screening period (such as three or six months) before being allowed to have full voting rights.[1]

Participation is based on one vote per worker-owner, regardless of the number of shares or equity owned by each worker-owner. Voting rights are not tied to investment or patronage in the workers’ co-operative, and only worker-owners can vote on decisions that affect them. In practice, worker co-operatives have to accommodate a range of interests to survive and have experimented with different voice and voting arrangements to accommodate the interests of trade unions,[39] local authorities,[40] those who have invested proportionately more labor, or through attempts to mix individual and collective forms of worker-ownership and control.[41]

As noted by theorists and practitioners alike, the importance of capital should be subordinated to labor in workers’ cooperatives. Indeed, Adams et al. see workers’ cooperatives as “labor-ist” rather than “capital-ist”:

“Labor is the hiring factor, therefore the voting and property rights are assigned to the people who do the work and not to capital, even though the worker-members supply capital through membership fees and retained earnings…Any profit or loss after normal operating expenses is assigned to members on the basis of their labor contribution.”[1]

In short, workers’ co-operatives are organized to serve the needs of worker-owners by generating benefits (which may or may not be profits) for the worker-owners rather than external investors. This worker-driven orientation makes them fundamentally different from other corporations. Additional cooperative structural characteristics and guiding principles further distinguish them from other business models. For example, worker-owners may not believe that profit maximization is the best or only goal for their co-operative or they may follow the Rochdale Principles. As another example, worker cooperatives’ flattened management structure and more egalitarian ideology often give workers more options and greater freedom in resolving work-place problems.[43]

Profits (or losses) earned by the worker’s cooperative are shared by worker-owners. Salaries generally have a low ratio difference which ideally should be “guided by principles of proportionality, external solidarity and internal solidarity”.[1]

In my experience worker co-ops of Autists and otherwise neurodivergent people provide by far the healthiest and most life affirming life path for Autistic people in our times. I am far from alone in this assessment, and yet the Autism Industrial Complex is completely silent about this fact, which reflects the lived experience and the rates of burn-out in employment / self-employment of Autistic people.

The history of worker co-ops illustrates that dehumanising work conditions in the industrial and post-industrial era are not new, and they affect all workers. The differences between the early industrial revolution and today are not explainable in genuine improvements in working conditions. Instead they can be understood as a combination of two factors:

  1. Improvements in sanitation that were (re)discovered the hard way, in the wake of the extreme levels of urban concentration and deprivation, and corresponding infectious disease burdens in the centres of industry.
  2. The discovery and widespread use of fossil fuels to automate most manual physical labour, which has led to a shift towards less physically taxing work, but also to a much lesser dependence on large numbers of workers in industrialised manufacturing and industrialised agriculture.

As a result, many dangerous physical labour intensive jobs have been replaced by machines, and have been replaced with jobs that drive up demand for good and services, i.e. consumption. The increase in busyness, i.e. inventing and selling more and more goods and services that no one used to “need”, together with the convenience afforded by harnessing the work performed by fossil fuels, is the backbone of the WEIRD progress myth, which equates to exponentially growing ecological harm of the material footprint of modern humans.

Mutual aid

The notion of ecologies of care is growing in more and more places in the cultural compost heap of the industrialised mono-cult.

The risk of global catastrophe and ever-growing inequality characterize the conditions of living on a wounded planet. Acknowledging that care is always implicated in the given, defined by the aftermath of patriarchal oppression and colonial violence as well as by present-day compulsory neoliberalism and capital accumulation, ecologies of care work on conflicts related to care and towards the freedom and joy to care. Bringing together practices of maintenance and repair, multispecies ethics, social reproduction theory, public pedagogies, critical heritage studies, feminist infrastructural critique, and hydrofeminist engagements as well as the rights of humans and of nature, ecologies of care aspire to new public imaginaries of care.

Ecologies of Care is a group of curators, artists, architects, and researchers convened by Urška Jurman and Elke Krasny in 2021

The notion of life as a competitive game found its way into the science of biology by interpreting Darwin’s theory of evolution through the cultural lens of capitalism. The complementary perspective of life and evolution as a cooperative game as described by Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902) was largely ignored in so-called “developed” capitalist societies throughout most of the 20th century.

The current human predicament is a result of the cultural disease of super-human scale powered-up civilisation building endeavours, the origins of which can be traced back to the beginnings of “modern” human history and the social power dynamics resulting from the invention of interest bearing debt around 5,000 years ago.

Becoming conscious of human cognitive and emotional limits, and recognising that these limits are just as real, immutable, and relevant for our survival as the laws of physics, is essential for neurodivergent people to navigate sensory and emotional overload, and for (re)creating safe environments for ourselves and our human and non-human contemporaries.

Onwards!

Collectively, in mutual support, we are are centring Autistic lived experiences via participatory Autistic research, by actively supporting Autistic research projects, by coordinating Autistic peer support, and by curating useful tools developed by neurodivergent people for neurodivergent people. For systematic education, we are curating timeless concepts for nurturing and describing ecologies of care.

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