Visionary Functioning: Shifting Resource Flow Systems from Incentive to Willingness

by Miki Kashtan

(An edited excerpt from the “Resource Flow Systemslearning packet)

Our modern forms of engaging with resources are based on a deep-seated belief about human nature that is so pervasive that it almost never gets said explicitly: that we are only motivated by self-interest, narrowly defined, and that we won’t do anything to care for others unless it can benefit us in some way. This is the fundamental reason why so much of what we do, especially within organizations and in relation to the state, is based on extrinsic motivation: desire for reward or fear of punishment. Operating in response to incentives is a key principle of modern, capitalist, patriarchal resource flow, which is encoded into how organizations, states, and sometimes even families function.

The modern field of economics is specifically based on the assumptions of scarcity and separation. The former is explicit in the definition of the field: the study of the allocation of scarce resources. The latter is implicitly baked into it in the assumption that all we would ever want to do is to maximize our “utility” regardless of cost to others. We are presumed to be voracious with our wants, ruled only by the rational optimization of our resources and the availability of resources in the market. This is encoded deeply into the ubiquitous supply and demand graphs that are the centerpiece of classical economics in how it’s still taught.

Within this, accumulation and exchange make perfect sense: if there isn’t enough for everybody, if everyone is going to aim to do the same, it’s easy to believe that any of us who try to collaborate and to share will be screwed over. This means that it takes enormous courage and strength, within our current systems, to shift towards willingness as an organizing principle.

The tragedy of this is of immense proportions. I see this as the deepest expression of the fundamental loss of trust in life that patriarchy arose from. It leads to enormous suffering as well as global life support degradation. And it doesn’t match two basic features of human life.

Mothering and collaborative cultures

The first is the reality of mothering and of being mothered. Mothering is unilateral giving. Being mothered is unilateral receiving. No exchange is possible. All of us are here because someone, at some point, was willingly giving to us simply because we had needs, not in exchange for anything. There was nothing we could give “back” to such people in our early life. For years, we were dependent on unilateral giving, and we were formed in unilateral receiving. Exchange is imposed on each one of us at a certain point as part of being socialized into the society in which we live, almost all of which are now patriarchal and within the exchange paradigm.

The second is the abundance of evidence from colonizers about how much the people they encountered, especially in North America, functioned in generosity, care, and collaboration with each other and with life as a whole. So much so, that this in itself was one of the reasons why children of local populations in the US and Canada were taken into boarding schools to forcibly assimilate them into a culture of hard work and individualism. They were forced to have their own little bit of land instead of having land in common. Their entire way of life was destroyed because it was a threat to the colonial project. I maintain that part of the threat was existential and not material: the continued existence of groups of people whose way of living defied the presumed universal truth of how humans function. A key element of this way of living is the entire absence of private property and accumulation more generally. Any resources amassed would periodically be given away to those in greater need.

Both mothering, which continues to be the backbone of our existence, and the collaborative, needs-based resource sharing that is still the main approach to resources for a few billion people, are entirely based on willingness, absent any incentive. Part of the tragedy of what has befallen us is that those practices are retrofitted ideologically into the win-lose, self-interested, scarcity-based view of human nature, and the true flow within them is lost. We are not consciously raised within a context of generosity. Our stories don’t support us to see and grasp the depth of meaning of mothering in shaping our interdependent nature through dependence. Those of us in the global north, in particular, no longer even know, for the most part, about what it means to have no private property and to have truly shared resources.

In the process of writing the learning packet from which this piece is excerpted, a puzzle of many years finally settled. Given how much suffering exists in the world as it is, I have been truly surprised to see the intensity of conflict that arises within so many groups and organizations that are genuinely committed to dismantling structures that are based on control, incentive, and fear, and replacing them with more visionary and values-aligned ways of functioning. I couldn’t quite understand why it would be so; why wouldn’t having more spaciousness and freedom result in more flow and less conflict?

Shifting to willingness

Digging more deeply into what happens in incentive-based resource flow systems, I now believe I understand what is leading to these results. Simply put, willingness requires inner freedom. When we have been trained to do things out of fear or to tell others to do things out of fear, the transition to willingness can be a minefield.

For those of us who have become habituated to always saying “yes” based on fear, obligation, desire for reward or anything else, being able to freely choose what is a genuine “yes” is a challenge. The more likely path is one of saying “no” as a way to assert freedom; to experience for the first time the spaciousness not to have to do things; to test out the waters of belonging and acceptance; or to give room to the cumulative exhaustion of years, sometimes centuries or millennia, of our “yes” being extracted from us.

Conversely, for those of us who have become habituated to resources coming to us through the coerced gifts of others, the shift to willingness means accepting the possibility that the resources we have become so used to will not be available to us. There is no path to a future if all of us who are used to receiving and amassing resources will continue to do so. I believe that, deep down, everyone on planet earth knows it. And yet the prospect is understandably terrifying.

This is overall on the global resource flow scale. Although I am writing about what happens within any one organization, I believe the dynamics are the same: as the structures and pathways of power-over functioning are loosened, fear, rebellion, hanging on to power, and related phenomena are likely to create significant challenges and interfere with the transition. Even if all are eager, in principle, to embrace a way of functioning that is based on the principle of willingness, the specific realities of it can be overwhelming.

Here is where the role of purpose becomes central. When everyone orients to purpose rather than to each other, willingness increases. We are responding to a common need rather than individuals’ needs and are thus less likely to fluctuate based on the strength of relationships. When a purpose is clear and shared, it acts as a pull that aligns us with it. Building a sense of belonging around purpose rather than relationships can create trust and more capacity even without doing the hard work of finding inner freedom. Continually using framing that leans on needs and willingness rather than who has a right to what also creates a shift in the flow and may well increase capacity to explore willingness as a principle for moving resources around.

All this means that shifting a resource flow system to functioning based on willingness is a demanding endeavor that will likely require many detailed agreements to support individuals and teams in orienting in an entirely new way. The goal of such agreements is to make it easiest for resources to flow into, within, and outside the organization based on willingness. Fundamentally, it means first mapping out all the resources that flow within the organization and the agreements – usually implicit – that sustain the current ways of making decisions about them. Then it means painstakingly finding new agreements that are both visionary and practical so that the shift can actually happen rather than only being talked about.

The patriarchal conditioning that is being called into question in imagining resource flow based on willingness is rooted in all three of patriarchy’s pillars: scarcity, separation, and powerlessness. This brings tenderness and a sober acceptance towards the task: every last bit of thinking that sustains the patriarchal social order will need to be examined and held within agreements that are likely to be uncomfortable even while liberating.

The basic visionary principle

Visionary resource flow systems aim to create all the conditions necessary for resources to flow from where they exist to where they are needed based on willingness within purpose.

In my experience, this principle requires immense rigor to sustain itself, because of the difficulty in freeing ourselves from patriarchal conditioning on three levels at once: confronting our personal powerlessness, the separation within which we operate, and the scarcity that is the bedrock of our current societies.

We can imagine a visionary future in which we have re-surrendered to life’s flow and to the knowledge of taking only what we need, not more and not less, as a way to sustain regenerative natural abundance for all of life. Within that, as soon as we learn of a need, we would organically gravitate towards wanting to move resources toward that need with the least unwanted impacts.

The transition to this luminous way of being is what resource flow systems aim to support. The gap within resource flow systems is immense, and thus it means that mourning will likely be a significant need, and the rate of change likely slower than any of us would want even when all within an organization are wholehearted. We simply don’t have the flow “muscles” to have sufficient release of outcome and trust in others’ generosity and life’s flow to be able to accept what comes.

Attending to common challenges in applying the principle

Given that the entire human world is now organized into nation states that, overwhelmingly, function according to capitalist market principles, any attempt to create visionary resource flow systems is likely to encounter immense challenges, both external and internal.

Externally, most states create significant barriers to the shift to willingness and the maternal gifting that is implicit within it. States require financial resources to operate, and they rely on financial transactions that are tracked and recorded to be able to impose taxation on the population at large, and on organizations in particular (though often enough large corporations have extraordinary tax breaks in many countries). Capitalist markets require people and organizations that are dependent on the market to procure resources necessary for their sustainability instead of relying directly on natural abundance and human relationships to attend to needs. The confluence between these two forms of pressure is an immense and overwhelming obstacle to being able to shift to full flow in attending to resources, both for individuals and for organizations. The state relies on the market for being able to tax people, and the market players rely on the state to enforce reliance on the market and on centralized currency to support accumulation. Given the magnitude of the challenges and the scope of this piece, I am not addressing here the major obstacles to the shift that are directly related to external challenges.

Internally, the shift meets all the places where we have internalized patriarchal conditioning that interferes with the level of trust, creativity, humility, vulnerability, and honesty that are needed for willingness to be mobilized in an ongoing and reliable way. We are at an embryonic and experimental phase of this kind of shift for both organizations and communities, and much learning remains for knowing how to attend to these challenges.

The challenges

  • Scarcity thinking

Our entire social organization is built around notions of scarcity. Just about all of us are raised to believe there isn’t enough for everyone. “More” is built into anything we want; nothing ever feels like “enough,” including in particular when it comes to money and other material resources.

This makes it difficult to know what we need, to distinguish between needs and the strategies we have for meeting them, and to trust other people’s expression of needs. It makes it difficult to trust that we will have enough later and thus makes it challenging to ask for what we want, to say “yes” or to say “no” when asked to do things. Overall, the immense challenge this presents is to hold all information about needs, impacts, and resources within full togetherness that cares for all.

All the rest of the challenges within this section emerge from this core and central challenge that patriarchal conditioning presents to achieving flow of resources.

  • Thinking in terms of who “deserves” what and why

The transition to patriarchy, brought about through physical calamities or invasion, emerged from loss of trust in life and, from there, to accumulation. Accumulation led to the collapse of the collaborative, commons-based approach to sharing resources based on needs. From then on, some people would have much more than they need, and others would toil to sustain that accumulation for the few. Everyone needed something to make sense of why this would be so, and this is my hunch about why the notion of “deserve” came about: a way of explaining why, suddenly or slowly, we are no longer sharing resources based on needs.

This means that most of us are raised to have specific ideas and notions about why we and others do or don’t deserve this or that. Doctors are paid much more than those who clean houses because they have gone to school, because they have invested in their education, because they are doing work that is considered to be valuable, because not that many people can do that kind of work, or for any number of other “deserve”-related reasons. It’s not because they have more need, since all of us generally have the same needs. Thinking about needs challenges the notions of “deserve” and many people find it highly destabilizing to release the structures of who deserves what.

  • Challenges in relation to giving

One of the deep-seated grooves that is part of patriarchal conditioning is the mechanism of exchange. Within the depth of adjustment to this mechanism, most of us are challenged to give in response to a need in another rather than in exchange for something we will receive from them.

Exchange completely interferes with the flow of resources towards needs because anyone having a need who doesn’t have something to give someone else cannot have their need attended to. It is a core element of scarcity because we learn not to put our needs on the table nor to respond to others’ needs through unilateral giving, the core principle of flow-based economies. Especially in an organizational context, we learn, instead, to exchange, which means giving in order to receive something in return.

  • Challenges in relation to receiving

As hard as it is to give unilaterally, without any expectation of receiving anything in exchange, most of us, within patriarchal contexts, are even more challenged to receive without giving. One of the functions of exchange within patriarchal societies is to ensure that no one owes anything to anyone. Receiving without giving is coded as “debt.” We have been trained not to receive in order not to “owe” anyone anything. Part of why this is such a deep obstacle is that with the transition to states, debt became a pathway to slavery. Even if we don’t know this is so, the shame associated with having debt is likely traceable to those earlier days.

This challenge, also, acts as an obstacle to putting our needs on the table at all, especially if we have needs and don’t have capacity to give anything to anyone who would give us something in relation to our need. Simply receiving, unilaterally, brings up levels of vulnerability that are immensely challenging. At the very least, most of us want to contribute something before we would be open to receiving. And yet without opening to receiving just because we have a need, flow cannot be restored.

  • An expectation of attending to emotional needs through material means

In the last few centuries, with the move to capitalism, both our relationships to each other and our relationship to life beyond the human have been deeply instrumentalized and commodified. In relation to the former, capitalism orchestrates mass extraction of resources from the natural world into making products, where previously we would have been able to engage directly with the commons to get what we need. In relation to the latter, capitalism has contributed to the conversion of many forms of relationships between humans into services that are sold. Because so much of what we have come to need and depend on is now only available in exchange for money and not within a context of relationship, we have become accustomed to having many needs attended to monetarily that make the flow of resources based on actual needs muddled. For example, we measure recognition, appreciation, how much we are valued, how much we have contributed, and more based on how much money we receive. Even the common phrase “net worth” in English (a phrase that doesn’t replicate in at least some other languages) ties material resources to being a valued member of society.

Learning to uncouple relational needs from material needs and to assess the latter independently of the former is a major challenge to most. This relates to the “deserve” point from earlier, though it isn’t the exact same challenge.

Attending to the challenges

Within the Nonviolent Global Liberation (NGL) community, our primary orientation to increasing capacity is through practical agreements such as practices, ways of doing things, or specific ways of using tools. This is also what we bring to the work we do in the world through applying the Vision Mobilization framework. By leaning on agreements that are sufficiently anchored within existing capacity, teams and organizations can free up more capacity to create the shifts. Overall, we work on the systemic level, leaning as much as possible on agreements, with as little focus on individual liberation as possible while still maintaining the movement towards visionary functioning.

My reading and thinking have led to the conclusion that patriarchy started at the level of flow, with loss of trust in life leading to experiences of scarcity. This means that creating shifts in the areas covered by resource flow systems will encounter deeply entrenched challenges. It also means that practical agreements alone are unlikely to be sufficient for the transition to hold. This is a big piece of mourning for me, seeing the depth of vulnerability and often trauma that is present in the areas that resource flow touches upon. This calls us to see that a big part of the agreements is about establishing support structures that are robust enough to hold the movement when the challenges surface. In particular, we want to see to having sufficient people with sufficient capacity to be able to handhold others along the way. Without some people who are deeply aligned with and have integrated the shift to willingness, it’s likely to be challenging to bootstrap the transition.

Shifting through learning

For agreements to function within willingness and capacity and to still attend to challenges, they need to be strong enough to act like crutches supporting the walk through the discomfort, even shame, that so regularly arise in the transition. This is one reason why any transition to visionary functioning is iterative: we create a set of agreements, within the system we are transforming, that meet us where we are at the time of making them while providing support to take steps toward the vision that inspires us to make the effort to begin with. And then we look at the results and see what we can learn.

Within the Nonviolent Global Liberation (NGL) community we have learned a deep lesson about taking baby steps and continuing to move. Initially, we were very ambitious, and this was at cost to both people and our collective trust. We scaled back, and started again, especially in the area of distribution of money, iterating again and again, receiving feedback, looking for themes that arose, extracting core principles from what was important to everyone within the community, and working our way from those to implementing gradual shifts in how we are doing things. We are not yet where we want to be at the time of writing this, and we are sober about how much capacity is needed to make the shifts. Liberation from patriarchal conditioning in the area of resources is quite rare. Pulling too far too fast was creating too much stress. At present, we are moving slowly, and seeing that with each round of money distribution we are getting more intimate, more vulnerability is shared with more willingness, and those who administer and facilitate the process see fewer impacts on people and receive more gratitude for their care. The integration is slow, and the commitment by all of us moves me to tears at times. We gain our energy from trusting that what we are learning can serve many others beyond ourselves.

PHOTO CREDIT

Nursing – Daniel Lobo
Village life – Emilio Labrador
Mapping – Tim Pierce
Toy handout – The U.S. Army
Girl reaches – Jérôme Decq

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This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.

3 thoughts on “Visionary Functioning: Shifting Resource Flow Systems from Incentive to Willingness

  1. Steps2peace

    Dear Miki,
    Thank you for linking the core dominant cultural belief that people are defective by nature to the belief in reward and punishment. We need to go deeper and deeper these days to find the shared goodness. L’ shana tova! roberta

    Reply
  2. WithGratitudeEm

    I have received great benefit from reading these teachings. Please know that every experiment and iteration in your process and the NGL process is also rippling in many other communities and people, even those not tangentially connected to the work.

    Reply
  3. James Janko

    Reading this, it occurred to me that all of us who survived childhood have been loved by a mother or by someone who loved whole-heartedly. And sometimes we have to return to that love to remember who we are and where we come from.

    Reply

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