Tl;dr: Structurism

A political ideology optimizing the underlying structures that drive human behaviour.

July 2022

1. Summary
2. The Crisis
3. The Future
4. Assumptions
5. Causes
6. Solutions
7. Implications

1. Summary

Tl;dr. We can’t change the world unless we address the underlying structures that drive human behaviour. Today’s dominant political ideologies ignore them. This is an attempt to change that.

1. Humanity is at a historic crisis point of survival and meaning. Little is being done to address these crises. 

2. Incumbent ideologies are at the heart of the problem. Our dominant political ideologies are outmoded and no longer fit for purpose.

3. The Future Transformation Project (“FU.TR.“) is an attempt to change this. Our mission is to establish and propagate the intellectual foundations of a new political worldview that can allow us to survive the crisis and build a future worth having. 

4. This new political worldview centres on the idea that human freedom has been misunderstood. We think of ourselves as rational, self-causing agents, uninfluenced by external control. These ideas form the moral basis for democracy. But the reality is the opposite. We are shaped in every way by external forces that steer our values, norms, beliefs, actions and thoughts in ways we rarely notice. And rarely is this acknowledged. Everywhere is lauded the “free press”, though it is owned by a handful of people, the “free market”, though it is dominated by monopolies, and “free elections”, though they are gerrymandered and hostage to a two party system. There is no freedom in which we are not externally controlled. The question is by whom, and to what ends.

5. The great advances of history happen when the conventional wisdom is overturned. Today, the great taboo is the reality of “freedom”. We need a new Copernican revolution. Once, humankind had to accept that we were not at the centre of the universe; next we must learn that we are not even at the centre of our own actions. Human behaviour has to be designed.

6. The fate of humanity rests on the need for a fundamental evolution of human character. We must change who we are, how we think, what we value and how we behave. The destructive power of our high technology era is incompatible with medieval appetites and understanding. But for such profound changes in human behaviour to take place, politics has to address the deep factors that shape who we are – the key structures in the world outside the human individual, that shape the human individual. These include the four “i”s:

  • (i) Ideology and Information: the web of ideas that preponderates society;
  • (ii) Institutions: social organizational structures like the state and the corporation;
  • (iii) Infrastructure: the physical landscape and the tools we use to manipulate it; and
  • (iv) Incentives: the structures that motivate human activity.

Rather than appealing to the good sense of the rational individual, we need to focus on the deep structures that make the individual do what they do.

7. The new ideology is neither “right”, “left”, nor “centre”. Conventional left and right wing ideologies are byproducts of current political structures, as party systems force the creation of two simplistically opposing camps – and both have critical blindspots. Rather, we are focused on the deeper structures that both left and right ignore. In this sense our approach could be called “structurism”.

8. Practically, our mission breaks down into three phases:

  • (i) Establish intellectual foundations and legitimacy;
  • (ii) Disseminate the ideas far and wide;
  • (iii) Catalyse action.  

The goal is to emulate the ideological transformation achieved by neoliberalism in the 1980s. 40 years on, having run the experiment of neoliberal policy and seen its shortcomings, we need a new lens through which to see politics.

9. Irrespective of whether we act, the near future will be radically different from the present. Humanity is being transformed by computing and biotech into something quite new; the carbon intensive, “growth” oriented economic model – the basis for much of our economic, political and social life today – will soon disappear; and the unfolding environmental catastrophe will lead to massive political upheaval and the disappearance of parts of reality that today we take as fundamental.

The question is not whether radical change is possible; it is inevitable. The question is whether we can shape the looming transformation to build a future we want.

2. The Crisis

10. Humanity faces a moment of fundamental historical crisis. The problems are of two sorts: problems of survival, and problems of progress.

11. Problems of survival. Global existential risk is at a critical level:

  • (i) Environmental catastrophe
  • (ii) New technology (e.g. AI, robotics, automated weaponry, biotech, nanotech)
  • (iii) Old technology (e.g. nuclear weapons, biowarfare).

12. Problems of progress.

  • (i) Iniquity (e.g. war, violence, poverty, slavery, premature mortality, injustice);
  • (ii) Meaning (e.g. alienation, decline of the old religions, bankruptcy of old conventions and values). 

13. In many cases these problems are becoming more rather than less acute.

14. Humanity as a whole, and states, large corporations and powerful individuals in particular, are doing relatively little to remediate this.  

3. The Future

15. Several trends are driving the emergence of a radically different future in the near term. We are entering the third great social phase change after the agricultural revolution and industrial civilization: autonomous civilization. And this phase change is taking place on a radically compressed time frame. We are on the threshold of utopia, but flanked by disaster on each side.

16. Transhumanism. Technologies within biotech (gene editing / genetic design, nano medicine), and computing (AI, robotics, neurotechnology, AR, VR) are converging to bring forward a quite different form of human being. The new humans will have superintelligence, the ability to live for centuries or even transcend death in its old form and access to radically different forms of conscious experience.  

17. Computing and robotics. AI will soon surpass human abilities in almost every respect. AI’s ability to turn its intelligence onto itself and create ever more capable AIs may mean the exponential explosion of AI capabilities. Combined with the impact of automation, the current economic functions of the majority of the human race will become irrelevant.

18. Data, surveillance and control. The increasing digitization of the human being and the datafication of the world will give unprecedented power to those who control the underlying technology infrastructure, to manipulate and coerce human life. Today’s conceptions of human freedom will transform.   

19. The end of carbon and “growth”. The global economy will reach net zero – whether the easy way or the hard way. Many features of our form of life that we take for granted today will disappear (e.g. physical product oriented economies and the associated lifestyles). Similarly, GDP-oriented “growth” economies will end. This will likely involve a cataclysmic global political and socioeconomic crisis, exacerbated by a population growing from 7 bn to 11 bn by 2100 and environmental devastation from climate change and resource depletion. New global government structures / superpowers will be needed to address collective action problems.

4. Assumptions

This is the tumultuous landscape we are confronted with.

In thinking about how best to navigate it, we are oriented by some foundational assumptions. 

20. Values and aims.

  • (i) We are here to serve each other. We should optimize for human well being on earth. Maslow’s list of needs is a good framework for thinking about human well being. Other established frameworks like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Sustainable Development Goals are also useful, as is the thinking of the Effective Altruism movement.
  • (ii) Iniquity – gross unfairness – should be taken seriously and is a better target than inequality.
  • (iii) The highest human good entails a spiritual state over and above material outcomes (a sense of meaning, a certain experience of reality, affirmation).       

21. Philosophy of action.

  • (i) Focus on the deep, (usually ignored) structural challenges – the really big stuff;
  • (ii) Articulate visionary proposals based on first principles thinking;
  • (iii) Treat the world as a complex interdependent system (issues cannot be addressed narrowly);
  • (iv) The point is to change it: theory and analysis needs to be action-oriented;
  • (v) Kaizen / continuous improvement: focus on specific practical fixes rather than overnight revolution;
  • (vi) Science / empiricism over partisanship;
  • (vii) Tried and tested where possible;
  • (viii) Believability-weighted decision making.

22. Power.

Concentrated power is a necessity for advanced society. But at all times it needs to be accompanied by strong checks and balances so that that power is used in the public interest. This applies to government, corporations and powerful individuals too. 

5. Causes

23. At the root of the crisis is the under development of the human heart – what we believe, what we care about, our habits and conventions. 21st century technology is subject to the caprice of prehistoric brains, and increasingly in the West these brains are moulded haphazardly by external forces of the market.

The destructive power of our high technology era is so great that humanity will not survive without a radical augmentation of self-awareness and self-control. For this to happen at scale, society needs to become conscious of the critical external forces that shape human character – such as the following.

24. Ideology. What we think, what we think about, our beliefs, norms, values, customs, etc (“ideology”), are to a huge extent shaped by large institutions: e.g. the news media, social media/information businesses, the culture industries, marketing / advertising, educational institutions. In the West these in large part operate under the logic of private enterprise and minimally regulated markets, and often against the public interest. 

25. Institutions. Institutions (including the apparatus of government / the state, as well as corporations) concentrate unparalleled power in the hands of a small number of individuals. These large institutions set up the basic rules of the world within which humanity functions, as well as directly exerting power over human behaviour (e.g. via economic employment, law and law enforcement). 

26. Infrastructure. Infrastructure (physical structures as well as tooling, like web technologies) also strongly shapes human behaviour, by setting up the framework of human possibility, and nudging human activity in one direction or another, often subconsciously.  

27. Incentives. Human behaviour can often best be understood as a reflection of incentives structures.

Any social, political and economic system needs to address these deep structures in order to transform the output of the system. But in current political discourses they are largely overlooked.  

6. Solutions

Structural reform

28. Major policy reform is impossible without major structural reform. We need to address the deep structures underlying human society in order to deliver the policy changes needed. We need to do this with a kaizen approach, continuously making improvements while keeping the wheels of the broader system turning. “Revolutions” do not work without addressing these fundamental dimensions.

29. Ideology.

Ideology should be aligned with the public interest. People should be well informed, incentivized to work towards the common good and able to find deeper meaning.

  • (i) News media:
    • Incentives: set up a concept of public interest news (highly prizing the value of critical, rational, heterogeneous thought) and subsidize it heavily;
    • Disincentives: tax content in proportion to its social disutility;
    • Implement requirements for basic commitments to truth/fairness for large scale publishers / platforms, with fully independent regulatory mechanisms (i.e. freedom of speech not freedom of reach);
    • Reduce ownership concentration / monopolies.
  • (ii) Social media/information businesses:
    • Implement requirements for basic commitments to truth/fairness for large scale publishers / platforms, with fully independent regulatory mechanisms.
  • (iii) Marketing / advertising:
    • Disincentives: restrict / progressively tax / prohibit promotion of goods and services in accordance with their public disutility (e.g. in accordance with ecological footprint, cost of broader externalities etc);
    • Incentives: progressively subsidize according to public utility (e.g. green energy, certain impact businesses, B Corps);
  • (iv) Education:
    • Invest in education in self-awareness, critical thinking, healing trauma, civic values / virtues, etc. 

30. Institutions: the state / government.      

Government should be led by visionary, elite teams with a track record of large organizational leadership, who are driven by pursuit of the public interest above all else, and who are further incentivized to serve the common good (e.g. by financial and status rewards).

Apply best practice of modern organizational design principles.

  • (i) Vision and values:
    • Build the organization around the public good, in line with the vision and values laid out above.
  • (ii) Hiring and retention:
    • Vetting. Set up an independent body (like judiciary) to pre-screen government office holders, prior to standing for election / hiring, for core competencies, experience / skills, values / motivations. More stringent vetting in proportion to seniority of office position – in line with standard practices of high performing corporations;
    • Incentives. Set status rewards and compensation to attract the best talent.
  • (iii) Behavioural incentives and guard rails:
    • Transparency. Basic operating assumption of full public transparency for all government behaviour (meetings, transactions, electronic communications, etc – published online), except in exceptional cases (e.g. national security, with high threshold test)
    • Financial and status incentives, rules and sanctions aligned with the long term interests of the organization (e.g. no big private sector pay-offs after leaving office).
    • Anti-lobbying measures.

31. Institutions: corporations.

Corporate incentives should be aligned with the public interest

  • (i) Vision and values:
    • Tax incentives / subsidies in proportion to the organization’s public utility / broader impact.
  • (ii) Ownership / governance:
    • Vetting. Fit and proper persons tests applied to controlling shareholders and executives for large / significant organizations, assessing suitability / track record of commitment to public interest etc;
    • Expanded directorial duties to encompass broader public interest;
    • Promote B Corp structures.
  • (iii) Behavioural incentives and guard rails:
    • Move GAAP accounting to impact accounting.  

Policy agenda

Addressing the deep structural dimensions above makes it possible to enact the far reaching policy agenda needed.

32. Prosperity.

Economic productivity and technological progress are critical to our future; productivity should be aligned with public utility.

  • (i) Public utility principle:
    • Economic activity needs to be directed towards a clear picture of the public good;
    • Taxation / subsidies of all goods and services in proportion to their public utility (e.g. clean energy subsidised, carbon intensive products taxed, etc – dematerialization of economic life to increasingly natural resource light goods and services);
  • (ii) Replace GDP:
    • Removal of GDP / growth as a measure of prosperity, replaced with alternative measures including wider basket of goods (e.g. sustainability, well being measures).
  • (iii) Competitive markets:
    • Protect competitiveness of markets (enforce antitrust, break up / regulate monopolies / monopsonies).
  • (iv) Limit debt:
    • Reduce and curb speculative debt globally (e.g. real estate lending).
  • (v) Non-cash incentives:
    • Incentives for economic activity in proportion to its public utility (e.g. create status incentives in proportion to tax contributions, socially valuable expenditure, etc)  

33. Fairness.

Everybody should start out in life with a similar shot at the prize; people should get to keep what they make fairly; freeloaders should not prosper.

  • (i) Universal capital endowment:
    • Establish a universal capital endowment (factoring in non-cash benefits like cost of higher education);
    • Fund it with a 100% inheritance tax.
  • (ii) Incentivize earned wealth:
    • Minimal income and wealth tax.
  • (iii) Disincentivize rent seeking:
    • Tax unearned wealth / economic rents: 100% marginal tax on unearned income from certain monopolies, (e.g. gains from land value increases, e.g. legal monopolies like certain intellectual property / data rights).   

34. Security.

Catastrophic risks should be addressed with urgency.

  • a) UBI:
    • Establish a universal basic income;
  • b) Technology oversight:
    • Stringent global oversight and disaster recovery mechanisms around the development of new technologies (e.g. biotech, nano tech, weapons tech);
  • c) Environmental oversight:
    • Radical global environmental defence plan executed in short order (massive technology investment, de-growth, population plan, public utility oriented economic strategy (e.g. subsidize green premiums, tax carbon), major ideological promotion);
  • d) Global catastrophic risk (“GCR”):
    • Serious measures to address GCR (nuclear disarmament, asteroid defences, supervolcanoes, pandemic, etc) supported with global collective action.          

7. Implications

35. Outcomes

  • (i) Rationality. Smarter, more informed, self-aware society that makes better decisions. Addresses the current critical malaise of western liberal democracy: misinformed public opinion combined with universal suffrage.
  • (ii) Meaning. Work aligns with meaning; society is saner and fairer.
  • (iii) Prosperity. Combines the productive mechanisms of capitalism with sustainability, meaningfulness and the common good. Private vice aligns with public virtue: people are incentivized in ways that make selfish action drive public benefit. More economically efficient, removing wasteful forms of production and rent seeking.
  • (iv) Fairness. Radically more fair society, rewarding contribution without limit, preventing freeloading, giving everybody a shot, and providing a safety net.
  • (v) Survival. We have a chance of avoiding species destruction and progressing to a future of exploration and wonder.

 36. Is this still just capitalism? Or postcapitalism?

We retain many of the structures of the current capitalist order (markets, private property, limited liability companies, money / capital, the profit motive, wage labour, a strong state, etc). However, the fundamental adjustments to the structures generating ideology, checks and balances on power and determining corporate and personal incentives drive a profound change to the output of the system and the nature of its society – in a way that would transform human life.   

37. Is this right or left wing?

  • Versus “the left”:
    • We favour a focus on public benefit over public ownership (public ownership is fine, just not the focal point);
    • We support the power of the private sector, the market system and the profit motive;
    • We oppose simplistic income and wealth taxes;
    • We focus on the importance of incentives.    
  • Versus “the right”:
    • We support serious measures to address economic unfairness and freeloading;
    • We see investing in an effective state as critical;
    • We favour visionary plans to anticipate existential risk;
    • We believe that human ideas and motivations come from the broader environmental context. 

38. Action plan.

Three core phases to the plan.

  • (i) Understand.
    • Understand the world with a first principles, scientific, non-partisan approach and create insight about what needs to be done to make it better – focusing on the most important and deepest though usually neglected questions.
    • Found an ideas collaborative – The Future Transformation Project (FU.TR.) – to do this. An open source, collaborative, ongoing global project to source and develop the most important ideas for the future.
  • (ii) Propagate.
    • Produce / finance / support content across different formats and channels (e.g. web and social media platforms) to popularize this insight with a wide audience, and in particular with the intellectual, politically and socially conscious audience, within a compelling overarching narrative and mythology that unites these ideas into a single plan and vision.
    • This vision must give a clear answer to the questions “How are we going to fix this broken capitalist system?” and “How can I make a difference and make the world better?”. Establish a publishing organization to do this.
  • (iii) Change.
    • Actually change political structures with concrete policy and legislative changes, through targeted advocacy work.