New Game? Jubilee…

I got pointed at some Jordan Peterson videos recently by a friend who wanted me to respond to them, so I sighed and watched the first of his “Maps of Meaning” videos. I’m not following my normal practice of linking to the original, as I really don’t want my readers to spend hours of their lives listening to him (around two and a half hours for that one). That said, Peterson does regularly come up with flashes of insight – the trouble is, he then either doesn’t do anything useful with the insight or goes in totally the wrong direction (from my POV, at least) far too many times.

But I did get one snippet of insight of my own out of that. Peterson was talking about the inevitability of economics resulting in the strong tendency to produce a smaller and smaller number of “winners” until only one is left. I’ve struggled with this in designing variants to economic games, in which one of the huge challenges is to devise a set of rules which stop a player becoming dominant quickly and then proceeding to use their dominance to eliminate everyone else. Peterson uses the example of a game of Monopoly, in which eventually everyone except the winner is bankrupt. Monopoly is not one of the best balanced games from that point of view; others do keep at least some hope of overturning a dominant player alive for a lot longer, though that may not always be what players want.

Mostly, when I play economic games with my friends, there comes a point where we declare a winner well before we have actually played the thing out to its final conclusion, which avoids the horrors of most of the players being forced to continue to play an obviously losing position for ages, while the inevitable end approaches far too slowly. My friends are pretty well behaved in this; I’ve been in games many times when one of the losing players has swept the game pieces off the table and stormed out, furious (or even hitting another player); I’ve known plenty of other instances when people have just refused to play a game again after they’ve lost (and been condemned to sitting there knowing that, but unable actually to stop playing because they’re too polite).

The “game” of real economies is a lot like this. Sweeping away the pieces and storming out is, I suppose, an analogy of revolution, refusing to play is the equivalent of “opting out” or (as many people seem to do) just not trying any more, as the “game” is stacked against them too much. What it lacks, of course, is the moment when you declare the winner, and if the game has been reasonably enjoyable, clear away the pices and start again with everyone equal.

Peterson, to my intense annoyment, does not develop this line of thinking into anything which might remotely be a solution – he merely rubbishes Marxism as “something which has never worked”, confusing it with command economies, and, it would seem, just goes along with the TINA position – “there is no alternative”.

I don’t criticise him too much for that – I thought the same when I was, say, 14 – but I have actually read some stuff by Marx and by thoughtful Marxists since then… and also discovered that if I take the words of Jesus really seriously, I’ll have to try to practice a kind of communism – see Acts 4. I notice that the Acts  community only held things in common within their own faith community, but I also note that Jesus was very keen that we treat all sorts of people normally regarded as “outsiders” as “one of us”, so I don’t think the answer to putting this into practice is to just do this within our faith community.

What did however occur to me for the first time was that the clearing away of the pieces and setting up a new game where people were again equal looked a lot like the commands that there be a Year of Jubilee in the Hebrew Scripture. All debts are cancelled, all land returned (free and clear) to its original owners. It may well have been Jesus’ intention of setting up a sort of permanent Year of Jubilee when he commanded that we lend without expecting repayment, but he didn’t, as far as I can see, extend this to land – though his followers in Acts 4 seem to have done so. Debts, of course, were supposed to be cancelled more often than every 50 years (the frequency of the Year of Jubilee). Neither Leviticus nor Jesus proposed collecting all the cash (or, I suppose, the flocks and herds in those days) and dividing them equally, but had Judaism taken the concept really seriously and managed to implement it fully in reality (which there’s not much evidence ever actually happened), I’m confident the Rabbis would have got there…

In conscience, I don’t think there’s any significant chance that we can get from where we are economically to declaring “new game” every 50 years (which I think Judaism found out). I think there’s actually significantly more chance that we could set up a really communitarian society which would be along at least somewhat Marxist lines (though without any suggestion of a command economy).

The thing is, I think we are going to have to set up something very different from what we now have, or (in the more social-democratic countries) are being pushed toward. The writing is on the wall, as the 1% are giving way to the 1% of the 1% in having, in effect, all the economic power, and as Peterson can see himself, the concentration of wealth and power is only going to become more extreme. That way lies, probably, revolution (“wrecking the game and punching out another player”).

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