How could this fancy new code challenge the human and environmental degradations caused by capitalism’s valuation system? We know that the current value system reduces labor to an exploitable commodity. In Sensorica’s open value network, however, the exploitation of labor is directly challenged by creating a value accounting system that is inherently meritocratic and fair, where work done within one project can also be credited if it is picked up by another. It is a commons-based peer-to-peer production arrangement rooted in fundamentally non-capitalist values — collaboration, openness, decentralization — yet one that its proponents believe can compete with and ultimately replace capitalist actors in the marketplace.
Developing such a system has been one of Sensorica’s main goals and it is now seeking blockchain-based solutions to increase its functionality, scalability and security. Holochain is one of the leading contenders to build this infrastructure.
The idea of coding commons-centered environments such as these is also the impetus for the creation of the Economic Space Agency (ECSA), a global collective of counter-capitalist economists and computer scientists seeking to expand and scale up the values-infused production pursued by the likes of Sensorica. According to Tere Vadén at ECSA, the aim is to create environments for economic interaction that “… encode incentive mechanisms and choose specific valuation metrics of non-monetary assemblages (from relationality, trust, and quality to land, labour and material goods) in smart contracts.”
Importantly, the values being coded into these environments, which can expand far past a single enterprise to encompass trans-local economies, are not limited to labor but can also address environmental issues. According to David Dao, a pioneer in employing distributed autonomous organizations to further sustainability, “we now have accessible tools to efficiently engineer economic incentives in a cheap and scalable manner…by distilling (crypto) incentives into code, we are now able to treat economics simply as software .” Driven by this conviction, Dao founded GainForest, which uses a combination of smart contracts to link donors, forest communities and sophisticated verification systems to fund and support sustainable forest stewardship, specifically in the Kayapo Indigenous territories in Brazil.
Beyond exploitation, capitalism creates a sense that goods and services are stand-alone things whose value is directly captured in their price, thereby obscuring how this value is actually derived. This is what Marx called “commodity fetishism.” This view of commodities significantly contributes to workers’ alienation because it breaks down the inter-personal relationship between producer and consumer. It also leads to a disconnect between consumer and nature.
Turning again to Sensorica, the voluntary, empowered and justly remunerated labor that could be made feasible on a large scale through blockchain-enabled, open value networks could be a way to return a sense of ownership of the labor provided. FairCoop is another instance in which workers’ alienation is challenged by facilitating self-employment with the help of the alternative FairCoin cryptocurrency. Similarly, Fishcoin challenges the disconnect between producers and consumers inherent in commodity fetishism through more transparent supply chains.
By meticulously documenting the various stages in production, producers and consumers can develop and respond to the various human and natural dimensions in a given economic activity. The blockchain-based system that reveals the various sources of the seafood we eat, for instance, is a first step in overcoming the obfuscation within existing forms of consumption, while simultaneously serving to track and hence manage the tapped resources. The potential here is significant.
Imagine a product in which each step in the production process, from raw materials to finished assembly, documents where the processing or production took place, the working conditions and the accumulated environmental footprint. Each step of the production chain would be another block in the blockchain, whereby each transaction is documented by trusted parties and validated on the digital ledger. Products would thus be given an identification code that could, for instance, be scanned by a smartphone to reveal the entire history of the product and summarize its social and environmental impacts.
Icebreaker, a company based in New Zealand specializing in Merino wool clothing, pioneered such a system by creating a “baacode.” The code could be scanned on each piece of clothing, revealing a thorough record of production, including photos and videos from high-country sheep stations to final assembly in one or more of its globally dispersed factories.
There are limitations, however. While clothing is one thing, providing detailed histories and impact assessments for complex goods, containing hundreds of parts sourced from across the world (like cars), would require an entirely different and unprecedented level of coordination. Furthermore, even if such tracking systems could be established, it would be disingenuous to suggest that they would result in close bonds between consumers, workers and nature; the labor intricacies and distances involved in both agriculture and manufacturing are simply too great.
Nevertheless, the insidious way commodity fetishization blinds us to what actually goes into production by seeing only price could at least be blunted by establishing visible, detailed, and trustworthy history/impact ledgers.