The Socio-Material Lens

The economy as seen through its physical processes and social interactions

Our first inclination tends to be to think of the economy as “The Money Thing.” After all, isn’t that how we interact with it most commonly?

Acquiring the things we need to live and enjoy life requires money, which we must in turn acquire through wages or salaries paid out in exchange for our labor. The economy is the stocks, bonds, profits, and wages of a society and the socio-political tensions that spring forth therefrom. Easy enough, what’s the big deal?

Well the big deal is that money, while an extraordinarily powerful tool for actuating an economy, does not on its own an economy make. While utterly necessary for those of us who live within a capitalist economy and must use it to secure all those aforementioned goods and services, money is not in any simple way equivalent to them. One would be hard pressed to find some sort of true, strictly objective aspect to money in and of itself. It is not imbued with any kind of quantum particle, divine power, or other such nonsense that produces a “true” value. I think we should all be fairly comfortable with the assertion that money is in fact purely representational of some underlying set of actual, real processes taking place. These are the processes that lead to the creation of food and getting it to our tables; or the processes that transform raw minerals into the car we buy from a dealership. To this extent, it’s essential to the economy. But it is not, and cannot be, the economy itself.

Money is merely an intersubjective tool – its importance and function realized through common human understanding and action, its correspondence to reality entirely contingent upon human belief and engagement with it. Without us, and our shared ideas about money – what it is, what it does, how it behaves, its rules, all of it – money would cease to exist entirely, stripped down to little more than abandoned stacks of paper and orphaned electrons in computer memory. Money is merely a symbol (one among several!) of the material processes we use it to keep track of.1 This is exhaustively explored by my colleagues, John Michael Colón and Steve Mann in their works on chartalism. See the “History of Chartalism” series in Strange Matters Issue One (Summer 2022).

In the developed capitalist world it is far too easy to lose sight of this: we come to see money as coming first, materiality second. But what if we did the opposite? Examining the economy beyond money tends to turn our conception of it on its head, and renders most of the mainstream discourses – many of the academic ones, and all of the political ones – into garbled gibberish. Nor does it leave certain socialist hobby horses unscathed – especially if we buckle down and try to define “material” in a robust, modern way.

Yet the tradeoff is well worth it. The ossified old convictions melt away to reveal a new one, unlocking new doors rich with electrifying possibilities previously forbidden by imaginary walls and boundaries. As soon as we are no longer shackled by dogmas demanding “this is the way it must be,” we find that novel ways of being and doing are now within reach. To abandon capitalism’s fatally monetary lens on the economy for a material one is just that sort of liberation. It is to outgrow the notion of a “once and future economy” and take up “the uncountable ways it could be”; it frees us, or at least lays down some key preconditions, to pursue radical new ways of cooperatively structuring our shared material life.

Everything’s A Dollar

Despite its purely symbolic essence, money within our society has taken on a truly sprawling character of such magnitude that it can be said to more or less represent our whole view of the economy. Money often becomes the core unit of consideration, analysis, and contest. In the lens we have been immersed in since birth, all things are basically monetary in character. 

The poster-children for this kind of dollar-brained thinking are, predictably, the neoliberals. Under their hegemonic tenure we have witnessed a process over the last half-century in which everything has been financialized and reduced down to cash flows. “Return on investment” is the first question, and “creating value for shareholders” is the last. The entire concept of the private equity scheme is built on this doctrine, extracting money from otherwise fairly functional (if sometimes financially troubled) companies by essentially butchering them and selling the scraps. We can find cultural reflections of this too: more and more, the speech of corporate executives consists primarily of financial lingo supplemented by a zoo of buzzwords to cover up their profound willful ignorance (at times, bordering on contempt) of the basic day-to-day operations of the companies they head. Such trivialities are for the engineers or other underlings to take care of.

We have arrived at the hellish point where the fanatical devaluing of anything that isn’t profit-generating has spawned a ceaseless struggle against attempts to reform government services (even such unlikely functions as education) along the lines of revenue and profitability. This goes hand in hand with the inescapable fetish for “productivity.” The idea that there was a time when news broadcasts were run at a loss because they were seen as being in the interest of the public good is beyond imagining today. Every decade this mindset seems to expand a little further, its roots burrowing deeper into our very culture. The Born-Again Capitalists of the inner sanctum of Wall Street have created a religion whose gospel can no longer be escaped. 

It shouldn’t be at all surprising then that modern economists – cloistered away in investment banks, think tanks, and Ivy Leagues – seem to operate on a fundamental precept that markets are not only the center of the economy, but are the economy. Immersed entirely within this distorted lens, they analyze everything through it and fortify their theories atop it They have concluded that the entirety of the economy is the buying and selling of goods – nevermind how those goods came to exist in the first place – and, I might add, have done so with a rather cavalier disregard to the circumstances under which these sales take place. Some have even gone so far as to dismiss the role of human psychology.2 Thaler once noted that Nobel Prize Winner Merton Miller refused to even make eye contact with him in the halls, so great was the man’s disdain of the idea humans might not be utility maximizing automatons it would seem. (The Guardian, 2017) They have confused the dynamics that produce actual material prosperity in society with a purely academic analysis of business decision-making that is filtered more or less exclusively through the lens of a very specific version of game theory.

In short, it is a worldview in which everything is reduced down to a dollar. 

And yet their resplendent Temple of the Invisible Hand is haunted by a number of inevitable truths. The economy predates money and markets by several hundred thousand years.3 I am referring here singularly to anatomically modern humans, and not our many cousin or precursor species – though if one wants to use them, we can extend this timeline back several million years.  People were crafting goods, specializing labor, and trading with one another long before the first formal accounting systems were developed; it would take yet thousands of years more for the first gold coin to even be minted; and even today, under a hegemonically capitalistic political economy, one cannot truly make sense of our economic system through monetary transactions alone. Simply jaunting along with money and markets as your only units of analysis is the unmitigated apotheosis of overgeneralization.4 In all fairness, I must note here that mainstream capitalist economists will acknowledge the complexity of reality. These tend to be purely rhetorical, however, and they rarely treat with it with the respect it demands. We would be fools to follow in these footsteps.5 Thankfully the Left has made great strides in recognizing many social dynamics as inextricable from economy – for example the importance different schools place on human labor and its social reproduction, or ecological impacts, in any genuinely useful conception of the economy – though as we’ll see, this falls short of the physical, material understanding of economies I’m talking about here. 

And Then One Day The Factories Stopped 

To see how this kind of intellectual tunnel-vision is not only wrong but actively dangerous, we need look no further than the Great Recession of 2008. I won’t rehash the causes or mechanisms at play – others do it a justice I could never offer. I remember at the time being bothered by it – but it wasn’t just by the blatant miseries of skyrocketing unemployment and plundered retirements. Inarticulable to me at 16, something seemed odd about it, even beyond the banal cruelty of millions of casual mass evictions.

At the time I just sort of accepted the common understanding that something went wrong with the stock markets and the banks, and that overnight an enormous amount of wealth and savings vanished. “The Economy” – that immense, vague, and mysterious entity that cast a shadow over all of our lives – was unwell. With time though that sense of unease grew and took form as I watched the years tick by with the jobs only anemically returning over the following decade. That was the thing though: those jobs were “returning.” They had been there before. And then one day they…weren’t? 

One day, people were working, going into factories and offices and restaurants and other workplaces, going about their business of making goods and performing services. Then, the next day, they weren’t. Now, that is an exaggeration – it wasn’t nearly so sudden as that since it played out over many months and years. But at its core is something very real and very unsettling: physically, nothing had changed. All those factories and offices and the like were still there. The equipment, computers, and other tools all still existed. The engineers and cooks and drivers were all still alive. It wasn’t as though the cafes melted down into nothingness or the offices were demolished. Everything we had used to fuel the abundance of the 2000s, the secure work and material comforts, was still there.

This is the story with virtually all economic crises of the modern age. The Panic of 1873 was in a sense the OG Great Depression. A massive debt bubble grew out of the financing of railroad construction and finally burst. The economies of Europe and North America spiraled out of control. But here’s the thing: all those railroads had already been built. That investment ultimately did pay off, and we still benefit from it to this day in America in the form of one of the most sophisticated and extensive freight rail infrastructures in the world (albeit an egregiously mismanaged one) – a bedrock on which an industrial juggernaut was built. When that debt bubble burst, the railroads didn’t all get dismantled or poofed out of existence. We still reaped the benefits of being able to travel rapidly to all corners of the continent for centuries to come.

We cannot escape the question this poses: if nothing physically changed in the economy, then what did? 

Well, one way of putting it is that “The Money” – if you choose to believe the old refrain – “ran out.” Debts became untenable, financial products didn’t yield returns, investors panicked. Yet these aren’t physical changes. You had people, you had workplaces. One day, people worked in those workplaces; the next day they didn’t. That was the only physical change. Money is supposed to be this symbol that neatly stands in for the physical goods and services we’re moving and using – but nothing was actually wrong with any of that. So in a situation like this, the representation doesn’t line up with the physical state of the thing that it is supposed to be representing. There wasn’t some concrete barrier to the workers just going back into the mines or factories or marketing agencies or supermarkets, and doing what they had done the day before. 

If this seems a little weird, that’s because it should. It feels like this should go the other way around. Money in this context is no longer performing its function. It has become fatally detached from material reality. A typical capitalist reaction to this is to say we must reconfigure our physical reality to match the monetary state of affairs. In other words: we must dismantle the physical economy, torpedo consumption, ramp down production, and have ourselves a nice little recession to restore some kind of hallowed balance. After all, to them money is the economy, it’s just the natural order of things, and so to make any adjustment to the monetary and not the physical system would be profane and unnatural. So, that’s what we do: we go and remake the material economy in the image of the financial markets, no matter how dire the wounds we may self-inflict in the process.6 There is a strong argument here that capitalism has the additional constraint that the elite would never allow such a radical monetary reconfiguration due to the losses they would see. A valid point to be sure, but I think the case might be a bit more complicated than that as they do in fact suffer tremendous losses in these situations as well, even when their line of thinking is followed. Yet when it is “the market” doing it, as opposed to decisions of intentional policy, they appear to see an added legitimacy to the outcomes.

Because for whatever reason, we accept this rather insane point of view as indisputable fact. Taking the stance that we should alter the monetary system to reflect the physical reality of the economy is the “radical” view to take. To adjust how the monetary system works to prevent it from repeating such a divergence from physical reality is a criminal thought, and one viewed as little more than a dangerous and deviant fantasy. 

This is how dollar-brained thinking gets you killed. Okay, maybe not killed,7 For most of us, anyway. Destitution, however, has a very real mortality rate – a fact they are keen as hell to not mention when discussing it within the United States.  but when you view one single administrative mechanism as the be-all-end-all of your economy, when you re-gear your entire economy to match the spreadsheet, human cost be damned – you’re not making “hard but pragmatic choices,” you’re in trouble. In fact, it wouldn’t be all that wild to say that money and its worth are completely dependent upon the underlying material productive apparatus and what it can output. After all, even with all the money in the world you can’t buy what doesn’t exist. Great, you have a trillion dollars, but that doesn’t mean you can have a Star Trek transporter and start teleporting around the world.8 Well, certainly not in any realistic timescale at least. (While this is very true and important, there is an interesting counterpoint worth considering. Sometimes, you can use money to buy things that don’t yet exist, but could on a feasible time scale. To use an analogy from the paragraph: before anyone had gone into space, it was possible to “buy” a space program, i.e. pay people a lot of money to try. Under capitalism – and perhaps other systems too – you can buy whatever you want, even ideas, as long as it’s for sale. But the trouble is that your purchase may or may not work out. It turns out going to space is actually possible, so that gamble paid off. Unfortunately, the history of Ponzi schemes and military-industrial boondoggles from Bernie Madoff to CIA psychic research testifies to the fact that it doesn’t always. –Eds.) It also means things like goods, services, and labor aren’t interchangeable just because they have commensurable dollar values attached. Shutting down your space program doesn’t mean you can magically expand your healthcare system overnight – all you’ve done is unemploy thousands of engineers, technicians, and factory workers and probably inflated some insurance exec salaries. You can’t point an astronaut at a hospital and say “go do health.” Doctors can’t be bought off a shelf somewhere – they take years to train. Strange Matters co-editor Kyle Flannery once succinctly put it to me this way: “Playstations cannot be converted into sandwiches.”

This begets a corollary: a lack of money doesn’t mean a good can’t be created or exchanged. It’s part of why DIY can exist at all: you can do something you’d have to spend money on without spending that money. You don’t have to pay yourself your own wage to repair your own light switch. (Well, you could – but it would be nuts. ) Corporations regularly exchange services internally without exchanging cash between departments. Sometimes they don’t account for them at all! In practice what this means is this: shutting down that space program to make way for healthcare is a manifestly silly idea – odds are, nothing is physically stopping you from doing both at the same time.9 One possible material limitation on running both at the same time could be labor. After all, doctors take a hot minute to train (read: they have a one decade lead-time); and in that time they could have been doing something else. A planner who’s short on skilled labor might find it difficult to sustain both endeavors, on a long enough time-scale.

Things can happen without money, but money cannot happen without things. More elegantly put: whatever is physically possible is financially possible.10 Adapted from the quote by Keynes: “Anything we can actually do we can afford. Once done, it is there. Nothing can take it from us.” For more, see John Michael Colón and Steve Mann, “What Should Money Be Made From?” in Strange Matters Issue One (Summer 2022).

Money isn’t useless, of course. As I said at the start: it is a highly potent administrative tool to coordinate an economy. But we all know the Parker Principle,11 “With great power comes great responsibility,” on the off-chance you missed that film. and it applies here as well. For a monetary system to work well, it has to be rationally linked to the material economy, and to accurately reflect and administer that economy.12 This is a critical bit: money very much affects the material economy. After all, it is an administrative actuator. This makes its reflection all the more important – it must include mechanisms to both tell us what is happening, as well as ones to let us alter what is happening in safe and effective manners that correspond to the physical dynamics in play in a given context.  Because when your social system doesn’t match your physical one, everything starts going haywire, and bad things happen. 

The good news here is that money is a tool, one that we invented, changed, and refined over millennia. An empowering extension of this is that it means we can change it again if we need to. Contrary to the cash-pilled neoliberal zealots, it is not some pure, divine force descended from the heavens to impart wealth on mankind. It’s a human thing, and since we humans intersubjectively define money and manifest it through our actions, that means we can choose to redefine it in ways that better service our needs. This isn’t carte blanche to just do whatever we want – things going well is contingent on respecting certain inherent dynamics. But the possibilities are infinitely more vast than anything we were ever told was possible.

What we are dealing with in an economic crisis isn’t a problem of budgets or a scarcity of cash; it’s the problem of working out socio-cultural mechanisms for mobilizing resources efficiently. This in turn requires building a monetary system that can achieve this, instead of one that sporadically collapses in on itself. Prosperity is always possible, we simply won’t allow ourselves to create it. Money is not a thing set in stone. It is flexible, it is malleable, and we stand to gain enormously by treating it as such. The wider economy is no different.

Indeed, I argue we have no choice but to do so – especially if we aim to survive this century and the next. If we do not consciously architect the social apparatus through a democratic process, then we either allow it to be shaped by institutional forces unaccountable to the public, or we allow it to architect itself blindly, self-governed by its own internal rules and at the mercy of its own emergent properties. In this way, we put ourselves at extreme risk of the social apparatus instead coming to govern us.

Social Economy, Material Economy

The Socio-Material Boundary

What does it mean when an economy stops, as it did in 2008, 1929, or 1873? Despite capitalists making a social fetish of it, money is important. . Yet money is far from the only social tool we have for understanding and coordinating an economy. To formulate an answer to the above question, we must look far beyond money alone. There are many, many social tools besides it: corporations, interpersonal social networks, property, laws, regulations, stocks, etc, etc. Now consider that these are just as important, impactful, and intersubjective as money is. They are each a part of the economy’s social apparatus, this vast thing between us all that coordinates the creation and provisioning of goods and services. Most of the time we simply take these constructed institutions as givens – “that’s just the way it is, kid.” But just like with money we have created them, designed them, and manifested them through our actions. They are meant to reflect the physical events taking place and coordinate them to achieve our goals.13 I suppose a bad-faith interpretation could be to say that I am asserting these things simply do not exist. Far from it! They very much do exist. However, their fundamental character diverges greatly from our perception thereof. We tend to see them as solid, concrete things – when in reality they are not. The importance of this distinction will be explored further on.  And just like money they can become decoupled and wreak havoc as we submit ourselves to tragedy of our own making. 

To summarize then: money is not the economy. Corporations are not the economy. Stocks are not the economy. Transactions are not the economy. These are merely the social trappings of the economy, an edifice we use to understand and navigate it. They are simply the socially constructed parts of the economy. 

What, then, actually is this mythical creature we call the economy? Implicit in my writing so far, but not truly asserted, is a key distinction. As I have mentioned in passing several times so far, nestled within the observation that money is a social construct (as opposed to a force of nature), is the broader implication of a clear split between the social, intersubjective elements of an economy and its concrete, physical, material aspects. There are the things in the world of matter and energy, and then there are the symbolic and narrative concepts we develop in order to process and engage with those physical ones. The material apparatus of the economy introduces its own requirements and constraints alongside those generated by the social apparatus – and these then interact. It’s this unabridged and holistic view of the economy through its socio-material interactions which motivated the writing of this essay.

Gold, in the social sense, is a prized metal of great aesthetic and monetary value. However these are merely social characteristics, contingent on people around to perpetuate them. Without us, they cease to be and gold is left merely with its material characteristics: an element with 79 protons, resilient to corrosion, easily worked, and with great thermal and electrical conductivity. Nothing more. 

The same can be said of most of the economic institutions of our society, whether organizational or conceptual. Corporations do not have a genome. Tectonic plates do not buy or sell property for the purposes of continental drift. Debt is not enforced by the piezoelectric effect. Taxes are not exacted by lions on gazelles. Profits are not ordained by the gods as divine provenance. Value is not manifested from the sublime resonances of the godhead. Unless matter and energy are in motion, it is not a material thing and definitionally must emerge from human socio-cognitive processes. These processes are influenced by that physical reality, and human symbolism absolutely influences the hell out of the physical reality through how we choose to transform it in light of our symbolic systems – leading to some truly insidious feedback dynamics – but they must never be confused.

This distinction of mine between the social aspects of the economy and its material aspects partially corresponds to the Marxist notion of the base and the superstructure. In both cases (at least ostensibly) there’s a focus on the interactions of the two “layers” of an economy, their mutual co-constitution, despite there being in the Marxist case a perceived deterministic primacy of the base. There is, however, an important and ultimately insurmountable distinction: most Marxist literature I’ve encountered is startlingly scant on investigations into anything other than property relationships when outlining its rendition of materialism. In fact I get the impression that to most Marxists the “material base” of the economy equals ownership dynamics. This has always been perplexing to me given that property, like all the other social institutions I examined above, has an intersubjective character – absent humans, it ceases to exist. But if the main object of Marxists’ inquiries into the material substrate of the economy is a social thing and not a physical one, this leaves the physical dimension of economic life more or less unexamined.We must question the absence of a distinct, non-monetary, non-cultural view of economies. What I wish to excavate here is precisely this material, physical lens through which to look at economic activity.

Incidentally, whatever the practical uses may be of Marxist Orthodoxy, I’ve noticed that its lack of any prescriptive or even predictive suggestions on just how to run a post-capitalist economy effectively and efficiently seems closely bound up with the particular interpretation of “materialism” dominating it. That responsibility – the responsibility of understanding actual physical production processes and how to organize them – has thus far appeared to be derelict,14 Now of course there are some who have seriously examined these questions – especially in very specific contexts, such as housing, an area where there are some very grounded and thorough proposals. However it is also common-verging-normative to see such questions on specifics deferred as something that we’ll just magically figure out “after the revolution.” That even asking these questions of how to ensure our material well-being is fundamentally pointless and sometimes outright bad perhaps owing to its lack of glamor amongst activists or as ratings fodder for political influencers. Being well-versed in, say, the details and nuances of semiconductor fabrication isn’t generally a great way to ascend to the heights of party leadership or land political office. Yet it is all too often that very understanding upon which the ability to transform the world depends.

It is a startling blindspot of ours. Undeniably these are things that we must give attention to if we are to have any hope of socialist economic success. That, and I’m not too keen on letting capitalists monopolize the political dimension of such things – lest we find ourselves in the truly nightmarish abyss of being dominated by neoclassical Marxists15 That is, those on the left who claim to have Marxist politics but subscribe to the concepts of the neoclassical school of economics, allowing them to incoherently babble back at the Clintonites in their native tongue. For more on this phenomenon than you ever wanted to know, see John Michael Colón, “Wobbly Economics” in Strange Matters Issue 2 (Spring 2023). or proudly proclaiming “Communism Achieved” on the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund. 

If the concern of a socialist of any tendency is chiefly the material well-being of all people, and if money is merely a symbolic rendition of physical happenings, then does it not follow then that if we wish to accomplish such well-being then the focus of our attention should first and foremost be those very physical happenings? Among the many assertions of socialists is that capitalism is just the latest kind of economy, that the way we do things now is just a particular way of doing them, not the only way or natural way. As a socialist, I happen to believe this. But I also believe we must put this idea to the test. If capitalism is as intrinsically inefficient a system as we think, then couldn’t we find more efficient systems if we searched – in history, in the latent possibilities of current technologies – for radically different models of organizing the economy? Would we not be aided, then, in our endeavor to build such a better world by cultivating an understanding of the cavernous breadth of those different possible physical and social configurations? 

It is my dream to see a socialism that can economically stand toe-to-toe with capitalism. I want to see a system that can deliver on the promises of prosperity with equality and justice, which can demonstrate to the world a better way. Our job is not to tell a story about reality that merely bolsters our pre-existing beliefs, but rather to tell the story we must hear to learn how to navigate our convictions in the real world. We must see the steps to realize our dreams, to begin taking those steps now and do so with confidence. We must understand the truth behind the myth the capitalists tell themselves and us – to understand the physical reality of production, its relationship to the social systems that grow up around it – and to use that understanding to map out how we can build social systems that instead foster dignity and liberty in place of exploitation and defamation. Such an understanding may well act as a tool to theorize social structures heretofore unimagined, ones that embody these values and enact them effectively.

To do that, we will need a framework for understanding economies that allows us to build such a system of production. I would suggest that a part of our problem is trying to proceed with building a socialist system of production while still viewing the world through these capitalist lenses. I would put forth that if we are to succeed in such a project – and not just create some distorted new capitalism – we will need to disabuse ourselves of their fantasies (not to mention our own) and build a framework entirely of our own making, established on distinct principles. This demands we dismiss our capitulations to capitalism, discard our deferences to the ancient sacred texts of socialism, and instead strike forth on a new course for understanding material prosperity. 

Rather than a rigidly monetary framework, we should strive for one that does not require money at all to operate – but which can also readily understand it when present. After all, I do not suggest entirely eschewing monetary lenses or analysis – hardly! One would be a fool to do so. Rather, when I speak of “monetary” lenses, I mean those under which money is the core unit of consideration, analysis, and contest; those lenses under which all things become monetary in character.16 Marxist Orthodoxy gets a foot up in this respect, in that capitalized property becomes a major player in the discussion – and more importantly, the social dynamics which emerge from those. However, this school of thought rarely seems to move beyond these two additional domains.  It is this which we must grow past. The goal is a holistic lens that begins not with markets and money, but with the thing those often represent independent of the societal structures and narratives built up around it: the creation and provisioning of our material existence.

I believe that the beginnings of such a lens already exist. In fact, I think we have been orbiting such a thing for many years now. We just have yet to state it outright, to draw its contours and find its name. The work has already begun across a spectrum of intellectual threads. The gap we’ve discussed here, between physical things (material from here on) and non-physical things (social from here on), provides us a natural starting point for finding that new lens. It gives us the language we can use to begin outlining those contours and parsing apart the other elements of the economy in the form of three elemental questions:

  1. There is a material economy: what are its parts and how do they work?
  2. There is a social economy: what are its parts and how do they work?
  3. How do these two systems interact?

With these questions as our guide we can step through the economy, piece by piece, and get a view of a whole and how it interacts. As we dig further into these questions, new frameworks emerge organically, while new bridges dynamically grow between existing schools of thought and lines of inquiry. A very natural and intuitive theory starts to take shape with far greater power for understanding and navigating our material needs. 

What’s The (Material) Economy Anyway?

Fundamentally, all of us have certain needs and desires (or imperatives) to be satisfied. Through a process of social negotiation – contest and compromise through a range of social mechanisms – we arrive at a set of agreed upon, recognized17 This does give rise to the corollary of an unrecognized imperative – as well as a gray zone – but that’s a discussion for another time – diving deep into the conversation around social negotiation. 18 It is extremely interesting to note in this connection a very similar problem identified by at least one thoughtful group of Marxists in the 1940s – the lack, in most “scientific socialist” writing about a future economy oriented towards producing “use-values” to meet “basic needs,” of a theory of what needs even are and how they’re socially constructed. See Theodor Adorno, Gretel Adorno, & Friedrich Pollock, “Theory of Needs,”New Left Review 128 (Mar/Apr 2021). Even more intriguing is the fact this conversation developed in the first place out of the threatening possibility that New Deal social democracy might increase working-class living standards or even abolish unemployment without any fundamental change to the existence of class society – it was this question of whether capitalism was capable, with reforms, of meeting working-class “needs” that prompted the questions of what “needs” are in the first place. –Eds. imperatives, towards which we will direct efforts and resources with the goal of their satisfaction. This thing we call prosperity is merely a measure of how good we are at satisfying those socio-cultural imperatives.19 I would like to note: these imperatives can vary dramatically from place to place, society to society, era to era, and even between groups within a society. An atheist would have zero interest in bibles, whilst christians would see them as a dire necessity. They are not absolute, universal, or static.  We need things like food, shelter, and healthcare to live; we desire things that make our lives more meaningful and comfortable. A prosperous society is one in which we achieve those goals, and a destitute society is one in which we fail at this. How we go about accomplishing these things is the domain of an economy: the vast socio-material apparatus that aspires to satisfy those imperatives by using socially constructed institutions (in our era: the financial system, the corporations, etc) to guide physical transformations (activities undertaken by our various industries).20 It is impossible to write any piece that does not exist within the context and under the influence of the works of other thinkers. Specifically, this is built on top of the works of Fred Lee – the man who has perhaps come closer than any to truly devising a complete theory of economics. I am merely helping to pave a length of the road he set down. Similarly, my thinking owes a great debt to Marx as well, critical though I may be of him. I tend to think of my criticisms as an effort at modernization of his thinking, not an effort to “prove him wrong” or some other bombastic description. My desire is to set forth a new materialism, one not steeped in dogmas and inherited ideas, and it is in these two thinkers (among many others) that the seed of this work comes from. For more on Fred Lee in particular, see John Michael Colón, “Wobbly Economics” in Strange Matters Issue 2 (Spring 2023) and Frederic S. Lee, Microeconomic Theory: A Heterodox Approach (2018) A socialist society could simply be one with a different apparatus, organized under different principles, orchestrating much of the same physical processes. Whereas today, the apparatus in our society today happens to be a capitalist one, and we can understand a recession like 2008’s as a case of the social apparatus collapsing in on itself and jamming the physical apparatus to accord with the ideological imperatives of that capitalist system. Fundamentally, all of us have certain needs and desires (or imperatives) to be satisfied. Through a process of social negotiation – contest and compromise through a range of social mechanisms – we arrive at a set of agreed upon, recognized imperatives, towards which we will direct efforts and resources with the goal of their satisfaction. This thing we call prosperity is merely a measure of how good we are at satisfying those socio-cultural imperatives. We need things like food, shelter, and healthcare to live; we desire things that make our lives more meaningful and comfortable. A prosperous society is one in which we achieve those goals, and a destitute society is one in which we fail at this. How we go about accomplishing these things is the domain of an economy: the vast socio-material apparatus that aspires to satisfy those imperatives by using socially constructed institutions (in our era: the financial system, the corporations, etc) to guide physical transformations (activities undertaken by our various industries). A socialist society could simply be one with a different apparatus, organized under different principles, orchestrating much of the same physical processes. Whereas today, the apparatus in our society today happens to be a capitalist one, and we can understand a recession like 2008’s as a case of the social apparatus collapsing in on itself and jamming the physical apparatus to accord with the ideological imperatives of that capitalist system.21 Would a socialist society merely be one operating under a different configuration of the socio-cultural apparatus? Would any socialist system of necessity find itself directing at least some of those very same physical processes, under a different social configuration emphasizing bottom-up decision-making and direct-democratic control over production? These are good questions, and hint at the possibility of one day establishing socio-material dynamic definitions of capitalism and socialism that are more precise about the boundaries of when you’ve crossed from one into the other.

Material Production

To achieve the fulfillment of recognized imperatives, we must make use of the resources available to us to create the various products (goods or services) we require. In the more colloquial economic sense, resources are well understood to be the raw materials – energy, metals, and other substances – derived from nature in some way to fuel industry. This is, however, a bit too limited in scope. After all, there are other ingredients critical to creating any good. Labor, for instance, must enter the system at some point. For there to be food to be eaten, somebody must grow that food. More than that, it isn’t always just labor, but labor with the expertise to know how to grow, harvest, and process that food. There are also intermediary products, such as a fertilizer which must be first manufactured before being tilled into the soil and consumed. 

Creating products – goods or services of any kind – requires tools (or tooling). A broad and ubiquitous category taking countless forms, tools are those things we leverage in actively carrying out the transformations entailed in production. In the case of food: farm machinery, storage facilities, the transportation used to move things around spatially, alongside such resources as  the land on which the food is grown. The resulting stocks of all of these finished products in our inventories are also a critical dimension to consider in analysis, as they will have a monumental impact on the ability to sustain, stop, start, and redirect these processes (and hence also the speed with which such changes can be realized). 

So to sum it up: it is with resources that production is undertaken. We can define production as a process by which inputs (iron ore mined from the earth, or refined steel ingots) go through some kind of transformation (melted down and poured into a mold) into various outputs (the engine block of a car). Without the required resources as inputs, there can be no output – no fertilizer, labor, machinery, or transportation means no growing of crops (the transformation of the inputs) nor any harvest (the resulting output). While I’ve mostly described manufacturing processes up to now, this rubric can also be applied much more generally. There are only minimal conceptual differences, for example, in applying it to services, where the output isn’t a physical commodity but some action performed. For analysis purposes, the input-output framework is the same in either case.22 One final resource that often goes unaccounted for are by-productsalong with the outputs. One could debate the semantics of including them as resources, but I’ve done so here as a matter of conceptual convenience as they can usually be thought of as a “negative” resource – particularly in the case of pollutants or greenhouse gas emissions, which both very much have a cost associated with them. Perhaps not one best measured in dollars, but a cost nevertheless. They can at other times be a net-positive resource. Some byproducts are useful – Kingston Charcoal being the literal textbook case. 

So far, so good. But the devil is in the details of particular productive processes. The actual transformations themselves are enormously varied in character. This is true even within a single productive process – say, to make that car I keep coming back to. The transformations can be mechanical (using a lathe to machine a car’s crankshaft), chemical (the creation of the dyes for the car’s paint), or entirely intellectual (writing the software that will run on the car’s microprocessors). Yet anyone who is serious about manufacturing cars – a capitalist firm seeking to enter the market, a socialist government seeking to create an auto industry for the first time – must know a great deal about most of these processes in order to coordinate them appropriately. Before one can make a car, one has to know how to make a car – and just as importantly, how to do so most effectively.

In a profound sense, this know-how is precisely what it means to “have” a technology. Manufacturing acumen and the technology itself might at first seem to be entirely different things – after all, aren’t the knowledge that something is possible at all and the in-depth knowledge of how to do it properly entirely separate things? I used to have this view myself, perhaps a consequence of how we have narrativized technology as a culture (perhaps I played too much Civilization 4, 5, and 6). But the reality is that these things dwell on opposite ends of the same spectrum. Technology is merely knowing how to exploit characteristics of nature to new ends. 

We’ve known how to make steel since 1800 BC, but it remained a niche material for thousands of years until the 19th century – despite impressive qualities that made it superior to regular iron or bronze in many contexts. This is because we only had methods for creating it in very small quantities. Then we developed new refining methods, exploiting characteristics of nature in new ways to create steel in much greater quantities with much higher quality by blowing air (oxygen, more accurately) through the molten metal. This allowed its use in a far larger number of applications because the effort we as a society had to exert to create it dropped off rapidly. This process continued, with greater volume and quality into the twentieth century, and in our modern day it is ubiquitous because of how easy it is for us to make it. In short: we have learned how to do more with less effort.23 Jonathan Schifman, “The Entire History of Steel,” Popular Mechanics (9 July 2018)

This is a very grandiose example, on one far end of the spectrum. At the other end24 I tend to think of this end as being more “technique” than technology – unfortunately “technique-technology” is a very clunky term and given they’re so conceptually similar I don’t see much reason to distinguish between them so rigidly. The only difference is that the focus of what we call technique is usually very narrow. would be something as simple as a more specialized tool in a factory, or even as simple as a better arrangement for a production line. Micro-knowledge on this scale isn’t necessarily invented once. It could conceivably be conceived independently at the same time in different places; or it might be lost and re-discovered a potentially infinite amount of times. Think how many times you’ve discovered yourself and a coworker arrived separately at the same way of doing a task.

At any rate, in purely economic terms the most basic part of having a technology is simply knowing how to minimize the amount of labor and materials necessary to furnish goods and services of particular kinds – to meet an imperative. This is in fact what material economic growth even is at its core – it’s whenever, with our available resources over a given course of time, we are able to produce more things by devising better and more efficient ways of doing so.

Social Coordination 

Yet we don’t manufacture cars in some kind of contextless vacuum, where all the inputs magically materialize at the factory and a finished car just teleports itself to its future driver. The parts must first be created in their own production process; then shipped to that factory, which itself must be built and equipped with the right tools; then, after being built, the car must be inspected for quality, loaded onto a transport, and shipped to a place where it can be distributed – and in parallel to all of that, everyone involved (including the buyer) must know what their role in this process is and how to fulfill that role.

This forms a chain of interlinked processes, working together to satisfy the recognized imperatives of production a supply chain. And of course, each link in that supply chain has its own needs (hence, its own supply chain) that must be satisfied for it to function properly – a factory with no parts won’t make much at all, truckers with no fuel won’t truck much at all, dealers with no salespeople won’t sell much at all. 

The nature of supply chains and their need to be well organized takes us finally out of the material realm and into the social. It gives rise to the first critical social coordinating function: connecting the links of those supply chains to one another via coordinating linkages. This is more insidious a problem than it might sound. Capitalist economists are very nonchalant about this, waving it off with a cop-out like: “and then buyers locate sellers in the market.” But that is akin to waving away the disciplines of architecture and structural engineering as “and then construction workers build the building.” Entire labor disciplines exist for the singular purpose of making their supply chains possible through administering those linkages – the supplier relations that secure inputs, the buyer relations that direct the outputs, the forecasts that predict the sales revenues that must fund future output, and so forth. Indeed, this is the entire purpose of marketing and sales departments: to manage the relationships with individuals or groups who will purchase what their companies produce (i.e. directing the outputs). Let’s take a look at an example with jet planes. 

In order to make a jet, you need a jet engine, which means you need to either build or buy a jet engine – regardless, you need to source that piece of hardware from somewhere. Thankfully, there are many jet engines available off the shelf around the world. But what if you need some sort of specialized one? Let’s pretend for a moment you want some kind of compact, super-sonic jet – you can’t really get that off the shelf now. Instead, you need to find someone who can actually build that kind of engine, people who have the expertise to do so, and the equipment. Unless you already have an established relationship with such a firm, you now have to go out and find somebody who can do that. A whole process ensues of locating potential suppliers, negotiating with them about the parameters, the prices, etc. In fact, this process is the more realistic one – not some idealized “market,” but a system of communication centered around orders between buyers and suppliers and the ever-evolving processes by which they identify and interact with one another. . 

It could be said that this process – of buyers and suppliers negotiating product orders – is the majority of the “buying-and-selling” economy outside of consumer retail. It is in these negotiations that prices get set,25 Indeed those price negotiations have a lot more to do with pricing than “market competition.” Long-term relationships between corporations, with established pricing norms, discounts, and markups being the name of the game. It also means that politics and interpersonal relationships play a massively larger role than economists would dare imagine or their capitalist patrons would prefer to make known.  volumes are determined, or that it’s even decided a product will be manufactured. To put all of this another way: creating an entirely new product from scratch is hard as hell, because even if it is a great product, it won’t sell unless the people who would be interested in buying it actually know about it.26  If you’ve ever seen those “Clear” security lanes in an airport, ask yourself: “If I had started that company, who would I have even called to start organizing that? Would I ever have gotten access to those people? Or would I have been ignored – or even laughed out of the lobby?” It was started because of people with the idea who happened to have the right social connections (and investment capital) to make it a reality.  This applies in reverse as well: a supplier that doesn’t know there are people willing to buy a product and won’t bother producing it. It is the communication up, down, and across supply chains that form the bedrock of commerce. Coordinating linkages are a vitally important social system, and their breakdown can spell an utterly apocalyptic catastrophe for an economy.27 I am inclined to argue that it may have been a key – if not the – core failure of the Soviet Gosplan. 

All of this takes place within a wider administrative framework. Perhaps the first that might come to mind are the organizations we build up around different logical and functional components. There is no “correct” manner in which this is to be done, and the diversity with which it can be approached is quite broad – ranging from the highly nebulous, decentralized, and conceptual to discrete legal entities. As such, these can really only be described as social formations, culturally devised groupings of people and processes. 

We can draw these lines along all sorts of boundaries, and they are not always exclusive – sometimes cohabitating or being nested within one another. For instance, marketing can be described as a type of services product that serves a particular socio-economic function. An entire marketing firm might be dedicated to this, and as such we might see these people organized into an autonomous social formation that works with a wide range of corporations as its clients. Or this same group  could be a department within a larger corporation (itself a social formation), dedicated to the marketing services for a group of products that corporation produces. Yet another (hypothetical, to my knowledge) formulation might be one of a union of marketers who act as independent contractors within the wider framework of that union. Perhaps they work within a specific kind of industry, or perhaps span many different kinds of industries – industries that are themselves social formations, as groupings of products that we consider to be related to one another. 

We can immediately identify a several kinds of common premises for delineating social formations involved in production  – they can be structured around a given factory or shop, a product or product group, servicing a particular imperative, participating in a labor discipline, serving a type of function within a wider formation, existing for accountability and oversight purposes (e.g. as legal accounting continuities), and so on.28 This is by no means an exhaustive listing – almost any social “grouping,” even a household, would be a part of this socio-material pillar. This demands a more comprehensive taxonomy be established at some point in the future. I put special emphasis on this, given socialist political interest around how the social relationships in production are organized and this is one of the places where that is most directly realized.

In addition to these groupings of labor and resources, there are the manners in which social formations (and individuals too) are expected to operate. These conventions form the rulesets that dictate the agreed upon “appropriate” manner in which economic activities are to be carried out. These can be highly explicit, as with governmental regulations, laws, or corporate and union policies. They may alternately be highly informal, instead arising as norms and mores within business. It is considered normal to give two weeks notice before leaving a job, but this isn’t a law nor is it an enforceable policy. These form a set of common operational procedures that allow predictability, accountability, and prudent behavior by involved parties – and in particular “fair treatment” between parties.29 Nominally, in the eyes of liberal capitalists, all parties – but in reality this applies more to fairness for shareholders and corporate entities at the expense of fairness for individuals, workers, consumers, etc. 

Finally, and perhaps the most deceptively complex, are what can be termed representative tokens and their accounting. While one might default to money as the immediate example (and it indeed is a good one), this in fact encompasses a much larger set of conceptual objects. Tokens generally represent both the past and present states of affairs across social formations and individuals, embodying their relationships between one another. At its most basic, the labor of a worker invested into the economy is accounted for (inequitably) as the money in their wages or salary. At a more abstract level,30 And, I would argue, a highly inaccurate level, relative to the purposes described.  the stocks of a corporation, their owners, their perceptions of the corresponding company, and the dollar value of the stocks (ostensibly) are a token complex representing the current, past, and expectations of future value of the company. 

Tokens can be highly literal, as in the case of something like Brent Crude or other finance commodities. They can also be very indirect, such as government bonds which, while technically just being a government debt with a fixed repayment schedule, are often looked to as a measure of confidence in the wider financial system. Tokens are typically under the purview of a number of conventions that define their nature (in addition to more concrete factors), from which an operational function can develop as an emergent property in the wider financial system. For example, a country might have a currency of its own, but (for reasons I won’t get into here) people gravitate towards using a reserve currency (eg, dollars or euros) for international payments as a stabilization strategy.31 Keep an eye out for the forthcoming and long-awaited series on forex by Colón & Mann to hear more about this. –Eds.

Tokens form the symbolic bedrock of economic activity through their definition, their conventions, and their relationships to one another. It is through tokens that transactions can be tracked and realized, and it is through tokens that something like the production of oil can become conceptually (and even operationally)  linked to the wider performance of the economy overall. Its material importance as an energy resource means its availability has broad, known impacts. Changes in this availability will have real consequences, and so changes reflected in the token relationships (accurate or not) are read as barometers of those expected consequences. Seeing those changes will then impact the behaviors of individuals and formations.32 And so an infinitely glamorized idol of the laissez-faire caucus emerges: “price signals.” I delight in it being a mere footnote in the Socio-Material Dynamics model – just a minor phenomenon amongst many. The vastness of its relevance bleeds over, and can be viewed alongside other such token relationships as a kind of index. 

Truth be told, this is all that money is: a particularly generalized and fluid kind of token that roughly stands in for the “economic command” of the holder. This serves to underscore just how narrow-minded the money-centric approach of most mainline economists truly is. They have taken one particular kind of one particular feature of how we administer production and allocation at a societal level and elevated it to the centerpiece of the entire field of study. 

Summary: The Pillars of Socio-Material Dynamics

We can refine all of this down into a set of pillars that form the frame of what an economy is at both the Material and Social levels.

There exist Imperatives:
  • • The needs and desires for goods and services, for example:
    • • Food
    • • Shelter
    • • Health
    • • Education
    • • Entertainment
    • • The social processes by which these are created, identified, and negotiated
There exist available Resources:
  • • How much time we as a society have available between all of us to engage in these economic activities (labor-power or labor-time)
  • • How much our labor can accomplish in a given day or hour•How much our labor can accomplish in a given day or hour
  • • The expertise of our labor (skills, specializations, etc)
  • • The productive tooling (machinery, buildings, land,33 Land: is it a tool? Is it a resource? Better question: must it be just one or the other? Or can we take the “radical” step of acknowledging that maybe sometimes things will defy discrete categorization? Personally, I know I’d like to – I’ve wasted way too much time trying to cram that square peg in a round hole.  infrastructure)
  • • Intermediary products
  • • Raw materials (minerals, energy)
  • • Relevant byproducts (dependent on the given process)
  • • Perhaps even what we may today call “capital”
There exist processes of Production:
  • • The transformations being undertaken on inputs to create outputs
There exist Technologies to enable those processes: 
  • • Knowing how the physical laws of the world can be used to meet our demands (knowing what it is possible to make)
  • • Know how to utilize those physical laws to create the goods and services which will satisfy those demands (knowing how to actually make it)
  • • Knowing the most effective / efficient manners of doing so (knowing how best to enact transformations to create outputs)•Knowing the most effective / efficient manners of doing so (knowing how best to enact transformations to create outputs)
There exist wider Supply Chains
  • • The sequence of productive steps necessary to create products
  • • The logistical connections that allow the flow of products along the chains
There exist Coordinating Linkages: 
  • • Social relationships – whether personal, organizational, or political – that link together different productive processes and the social formations undertaking them
  • • The mechanisms by which new linkages can emerge
  • • The negotiations and agreements between those groups
There exist Social Formations
  • • The organizations, associations, and other conceptual groupings through which production is organized
  • • The boundaries identified between formations that conceptually and socially separate them
  • • The processes by which formations are born, are disbanded, or evolve
There exist Conventions:
  • • The explicit rules and regulations which agents are required to abide by
  • • The implicit codes of conduct which agents are expected to abide by
  • • The norms and mores of the economy and wider society
There exist Tokens:
  • • The discrete symbols used to quantifiably represent real and conceptual components of the economy
  • • The accounting system that tracks and administers these symbols
  • • The relationships between these symbols

To circle back to our question posed several sections ago, “What happened in all of those economic crises?” – we can say with confidence that it had very little to do with anything material in the sense demonstrated here. Rather, we can identify very specifically that it came down to the administrative apparatus. Very specifically, the token system became wildly dysfunctional, but rather than fix that system we opted to mutilate the material apparatus to match it. It was not the material dynamics that went wrong, but the social dynamics of the economy. 

Because on a fundamental level the economy is not Wall Street real-estate finance. The economy is a process of mobilizing what resources we have available to us to engage in activities of production, coordinated by our organizational and administrative mechanisms, so as to achieve the material goals of our society – most commonly those being:

  1. The self-perpetuation of that society
  2. The ever-vague, ever-evolving, ever-critical concept of prosperity. 

Everything outlined here is of course a great simplification – resources are more complicated, one kind of labor may or may not be interchangeable with another, our technical knowledge is always changing, the minimum productivity for self-perpetuation is not fixed (or even definable in absolute terms), certain tooling might be in shortage, etc, etc – but they convey the base concepts at play here.

All the money, the stocks, the corporations, the governments, the laws and regulations, the unions, the pontifications on television – all of these are just a social apparatus we use to understand and drive this material process. They are an edifice: a cognitive interface to help us understand what is taking place and to actuate goals. They are malleable, changeable, and there is no “correct” one or “proper set” of social tools – there are just the ones we decide, for whatever (ig)noble reason, to make use of in understanding and conceptually organizing and explaining the material dynamics that underpin it all and make our physical lives possible.

This is the economy, properly – Socio-Materially – understood. 

Conclusions: Socio-Material Dynamics and the Economics of a Social Commonwealth

Economic thought in our time is utterly dominated by a very particular (and insidious) school of thought – the neoclassicists. It is a school of thought whose dogmas are suspiciously convenient for the reigning capitalist economic order, crafting elaborate justifications for the status quo. They do so by building out intricate mathematical models, built atop and embodying a set of nigh-divine axioms, to push economic discussions into an esoteric sphere of extreme complexity in the opaque depths of the institutional organs of finance. By beginning the conversation at the most abstract level, they draw attention away from examination of the axioms themselves, relegating them to unspoken givens – which protects them from having to address mountains of evidence that clearly indicate many of these axioms flirt with outright delusion. A simple hand-wave will do because, of course, first principles can never be debated.34 Though we too on the left are often just as guilty of this.  “Why, that’s not real economics! Look at my linear regression models!” 

They are a zombie science in the sense that they have, in a move of remarkable hubris, seemingly concluded that they have worked out the final, complete form of economic theory. There are no further significant breakthroughs to be had, all of the big questions have been answered already – an arrogant stance that for some reason elicits zero skepticism from most. 

If we are to ever have any hope of building socialist prosperity, then we must fight back against this bitter intellectual hegemony. We must establish a new set of intellectual foundations, and build our own axioms upon the evidence present around us. This is a more difficult task than most socialists realize, and it requires a particular attitude towards the left-wing traditions we inherit. It’s not so much about grand theoretical understandings as it is about developing insights at an organizational and administrative level – the unsexy but indispensable business of learning how to install offshore wind farms or manufacture semiconductors. As for previous socialist theory, if we are to be truly “scientific” socialists then we must approach the incorporation of inherited concepts judiciously – embracing that which fits the observations, and dismissing that which is founded on fantasy – with neither passion or prejudice for them. (Quoting Marx is good and all, but it won’t teach you how to draft equitable and efficient socialist commerce laws or create an industrial policy for the green transition.) 

Yet for all the difficulties involved, I believe that this can be done – can in fact be done much more easily than the orthodox professors in their gilded towers would have us all believe. 

I submit the framework of Socio-Material Dynamics I’ve outlined here as my contribution to this effort. I present it as a structure into which we can contextualize our other economic investigations. If correct, then its immediate upshot for social movements should hopefully be to expand our sense of possibility. It suggests there is no “natural” form of an economy, some cosmically ordained formulation of what an industrial society (or indeed any society) must tend towards. Economies are built atop, but are not a feature of, physics. Rather, they are a phenomenon of human society and its requirements. As such, there are merely different ways of doing and organizing production, many different configurations with different characteristics and different results. The actual question is not whether they aesthetically appease the gods of the market. Instead, we must ask whether a configuration is practically viable; and if it is, whether or not it serves our chosen interests and values.

To be clear, none of these assessments presented above are exclusively mine – most of what I’ve said can be found in one specialist study or another.35 Though I do intend in the future to take up some of these specific sub-studies myself and make a few original contributions where I can, in addition to simple communication of existing work. For this to be a viable interpretation it must have a far more thorough corpus of research than a single essay and reasonably offer. These have developed largely isolated from one another, emerging at times from entirely different disciples even when the thinkers involved asked similar questions. What I’ve tried to show is that such frameworks in their maturation have begun to echo one another. When you see them side by side, they fit together so naturally, so neatly, that it is hard to imagine that they aren’t part of a larger whole. Between them one can sense a wider picture coming into focus, a robust, intuitive, and thorough understanding of how we make our material world come to be. 

My aim here is to bring those resonant threads together into a coherent intellectual framework. The lens that is slowly being built here is one that an influential enough socialist movement might be able to make use of for the betterment of all. Should the day come when we are strong enough, I want us to have that knowledge that we might build a social commonwealth for all. 

I will be the first to say that I do not believe that this is the complete picture yet whatsoever. Many of the individual domains of research are themselves fledgling, and there are likely to be others I am unaware of. Or perhaps the distinctions I’ve drawn between some are spurious, and more accurate boundaries lie elsewhere. I would take this as a preliminary pass at revealing a cohesive, consonant whole. There is a monumental corpus of work to be done in exploring, analyzing, and describing each constituent part. They’re incredibly well documented in many cases – supply chains alone have an entire discipline dedicated to their management. Industrial engineering astutely covers the entirety of production. Organizational psychology and human behavioral sciences are firmly established and respected fields. Our job is not really to revolutionize them36 Most of them, at least. One can quickly identify several of them that are highly nebulous, or even outright fallacious. Some of them will require intensive work to integrate. It is not a small or easy task by any stretch. However I liked the semantics of this phrasing so I chose to keep it.  so much as work out the manner in which they fit within a framework of socio-material dynamics that encompasses and connects them all. We must understand their behaviors and how they affect other components. And we must create a unified set of ideas that can concisely and accurately convey all of this – ideally in a manner that gives us a path to successful architecting and management of a post-capitalist economy. ~ 


  • Quinn Soutar

    Quinn Soutar specializes in manufacturing, industrial engineering, history, and is interested in a myriad of other subjects. He is based in NYC.

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