About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Michel Bauwens takes a centuries-long historical view of systems of control and paradigm shifts in social models. He makes the case that we are currently undergoing another transitional phase of human history, from one stable system to another. He hypotheses about where we are heading, what changes we will make to get there and what technologies and tools we might need to achieve such ends.

The recent Coronavirus crisis has been a great revealer of the weaknesses of the current global system, but also a great accelerator of the changes within it. Many people will agree with the famous quote attributed to the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci that ‘The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters’.

Although Gramsci died in 1937, he was in many senses a contemporary, since he lived precisely in a time of transition. His epoch was sandwiched between what existed before World War I, the ‘Smithian’ capitalist system, and what would emerge after World War II. Before WWI, western society was, in Gramsci’s view, characterised by the domination of capital over labour, and it did not have any multilateral system that could keep the peace between warring coalitions of competing nation states.

Out of this transition period, and at the cost of two world wars, came a new system which was based on two pillars: the first pillar was a new compact between the world of capital and the world of labour – the welfare state model, which became dominant at least in Western countries; the second pillar was the creation of multilateral institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the World Bank, tasked with protecting the new world system and mediating its conflicts.

We argue that we are in a similar period, a ‘chaotic transition’ between one stable system and another, as described by the fairly unknown Hungarian thinker Peter Pogany. We argue that the post-WWII transformations came with a price tag and were incomplete; that the compact between capital and labour, and the fairly weak multilateral institutions we created after WWII, are no longer enough. The questions are: What can we expect now? What needs to happen this time? We venture some hypotheses about the next system to which we must transition.

First, the next stable system will be a compact between humanity and nature – that is, a recognition of the interdependent nature of all life and that non-human beings are partner species. One weakness is that the systems developed to date largely ignore the huge environmental costs of intense industrial production. Clearly, human economic society can only exist with the ecological system of the Earth, but the fact that many environmental costs are often considered ‘externalities’ illustrates that our current economic systems struggle to take them into account. Communist systems of central control have fared no better than market-based systems.

Second, we suggest that this cannot be done without reinventing the ‘social compact’ and extending this to the whole planet as well. In other words, both the ecological and the social transition are interconnected and interdependent; we can only be successful if we combine both and give all of humanity a stake in the future.

Third, to be successful in this new compact, we will need stronger multilateral organisations which can represent the needs of the whole planet. This means learning, but also ‘forcing ourselves’ in some ways, to live within planetary boundaries. Yes, we need human freedom and initiative, but our freedom stops when we endanger the life conditions of other peoples and natural beings. How to achieve this transition without ecological fascism and dictatorship is going to be the great challenge.

Let us now address what kind of technologies and tools we might need to achieve such ends, and inquire whether the blockchain – that is, our capacity to coordinate human activity through shared ledgers – can help us.