On Dark Mountain Project, having skin in the game, and staking oneself

In early February, I had a conversation with Jeppe Graugaard, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of East Anglia. The topic of the conversation, which also happens to be the subject of Jeppe’s dissertation, was the Dark Mountain Project, a poetically inspired fellowship that came into being when Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine wrote a manifesto in early 2009. In the Dark Mountain Project Manifesto, the authors part ways with the green movement and with a narrative of progress more generally, yet they have no intention of proposing political solutions for what ails us.

The ongoing appeal of Dark Mountain Project can be attributed not just to Paul and Dougald’s unique personalities but also to the mood and orientation: to their sense of despair with a past way of life (which they call “civilization”) and to their hope that a new way of life may unfold in a fashion that cannot be predicted or surmised. And yet, neither draws any comfort from utopian or dystopian narratives; both offer a space in which open-ended conversations can be held. Perched in this unquiet space, Dark Mountain Project could be the name for this space of transition.

It is perhaps fitting that I was one of the first individuals that Jeppe had a conversation with–appropriate not the least because I have not gone to any Dark Mountain Project events, have not contributed to DMP books 1 or 2, have not been linked with the movement in any explicit way except insofar as I share the mood (me: more light than dark), I share the understanding (me: more philosophical than poetic), and I have become friends with Dougald. The paradox is that this sense of finding kindred spirits in far-flung corners of the world and of creating a sense of fellowship, partially invisible to the prevailing social order, is exactly how Dark Mountain Project works. Hence the appropriateness of Jeppe’s starting off his research on Dark Mountain Project with someone like me.

The narrative of how we found each other is only one of the many themes discussed during my conversation with Jeppe. The lightly edited version of the conversation can be read here. Another theme was that of the importance of social experimentation during the interregnum. On the need for small-scale essays in the midst of institutional collapse, I told him,

What we’re seeing, I think, as we walk nimbly forward, or try to walk nimbly forward in any case, is social experimentation that you also find elsewhere. And what I like is the idea of having very small scale, porous and semi-invisible institutions emerge that are serving a variety of purposes and that might work and later on get scaled up.

[…]

And I think it’s in tune, and this is… I’m coming back to institutions, I think it’s in tune with the idea of starting up experiments that are not likely to hurt and that could very well give us clues as to how new institutions might look when they’re scaled up. Let me give you one simple example. Maybe it’s not so simple. I recently, over the past year or so, I’ve walked very nimbly, and tentatively, and provisionally, and Montaigneanly toward a full-scale gift economy. So my philosophy practice is now actually working entirely in a semi-invisible gift economy with the conversation partners I work with. That’s actually quite scary. Because think about how many ways we seek not to be harmed by others. Stipulating terms at the outset is a way of saying “here and no further.” “We’ll have ten conversations, it’ll be an hourly wage, you’ll accept my terms or you won’t, and here’s how the invoice will look”. Well, what you have is a very strong stipulation of not wishing to be wounded, and not wishing to acknowledge our full human dependency.

What you see is, a gift economy is a way of trying to return us to an idea of human beings as being goodly mutually dependent. And goodly giving, wholeheartedly to each other. That seems to be a good story of how human beings actually work when they’re not put in hostile conditions, when they’re not put under situations of penury, and when they’re not thinking in terms of scarcity. To actually be in a gift economy is to be in the full fecundity and full plentitude of being human.

Two months after making these remarks and about six months after working in a gift economy, I would like to examine further one very reasonable objection I have heard from others and from myself: the objection that a gift economy cannot solve the free-rider problem.

As I want to construe the problem, the free-rider is someone who partakes of a common good, presupposes that others will also contribute to the perdurance of this very same common good, yet makes an exception for himself. By making an exception for himself, the free-rider effectively gets what he wants without having to provide the proper support.

The free-rider problem will pose a threat to any funding model that does not stipulate terms and draw up agreements at the outset. I know of few, e.g., NPR-like donor models that can hold off the threat.

One simple reply to the free-rider problem is that, in a gift economy, everyone who participates must have some “skin in the game.” I find this reply cogent and sufficient. But how is it to be understood in this case?

I would like to parse the claim that “everyone who partakes must have some skin in the game” as meaning that each and all must stake themselves (which is not quite the same thing as saying that each must “have a stake,” say, in an investment). As a philosopher tasked with running the practice, I must commit myself to leading a philosophical life. As a conversation partner, each participant-cum-contributor must be committed also to leading such a life.

I want to consider further what this claim of staking oneself entails.

For Me

The financial stability of my philosophy practice depends on the financial stability of my conversation partners. Every day, I am putting my neck out there for each and all. Rather than apply force, I am learning to love weakness. (The lesson must be repeated daily.) Consequently, if enough of my conversation partners go under, then my philosophy practice also goes under. Without them and without my practice, I may surely survive but it seems unlikely that I would flourish.

To stake myself is to stake the genuine, lived possibility of my flourishing with, around, and in virtue of kindred spirits.

For Conversation Partners

To say that my conversation partners are “staking themselves” is to say that they are committed to leading a philosophical way of life. For them, this must entail making ongoing financial contributions as one gift among others. Why must this conclusion follow of necessity?

If this way of life goes under, then the kind of life each conversation partner says he is committed to leading also goes under. Insofar as each conversation partner wants to be thoroughgoingly philosophical, each must abide, at a minimum, by a first principle of the philosophical life: the principle of noncontradiction. It states that no rational person can consciously hold P and not-P at one and the same time.

Now, each conversation partner must reckon with the fact that she is contradicting herself if she holds both that she is committed to this way of life and yet is making an exception for herself (i.e., that she need not contribute, only partake, because others are already contributing). How can she be both committed and not committed to such a life at one and the same time? How partake of such a life but not care that it perdure? She must realize, therefore, that this way of life may very well go under (and thus a kind of life she loves be no more) unless she contributes what she is able.

It is crucial to state that this line of thought also runs in the other direction and with a result of the first importance. Suppose each conversation partner who is a part of the practice is deemed “philosophically ready.” Then if any conversation partner goes under, it follows that this way of life cannot possibly be philosophically justified. That is to say, it has failed to fulfill its reason for being and thus has no reason for perduring. If the practice continues while this conversation partner loses her footing, then it does so only in ‘bad faith.’

Drawing together the two threads, we can say that when we stakes ourselves, we honor the high stakes of being together in this way of being.

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