Consent Economics: What is the consent economy?

Consent economics is a way of approaching our social, political, and economic relations to ensure that consent is structurally centered and is at the core of our decisions and decision-making processes.

Over the last several years, a number of activists have been exploring the importance of consent across a range of human activities, especially sexual consent, and consent within the context of labor. These explorations have led some of us to begin to ask, “What would a consent-based economy look like?” Consent economics addresses that question.

Right now, the basic unit of the economy is this thing called capital, which is a way of gamifying human social relations so that people who win at largely inaccessible institutionalized gambling are given the power to direct human labor towards creating more capital. This system has only one goal: to replicate capital, at any cost. The logic of capital is supported by local and international laws, laws that force corporations into structures of demonstrating growth to investors and that likewise allow individuals who work for corporations to not be personally held accountable for actions committed on behalf of a company (this is called “limited liability” and it is one of the legal loopholes that led to the birth of capitalism in the 16th Century). Empowered by laws that prioritize capital, CEOs of capitalist entities direct labor towards replicating capital, often committing egregious violations of consent.

There are so many cases of environmental racism that emerge in a system that prioritizes capital’s replication rather than consent.

One of the most deplorable consent violations currently underway is a regime of environmental racism, in which communities of color disproportionally find themselves subjected to poisonous and toxic chemicals that are byproducts of capital replication tactics. Latinx communities in Los Angeles are experiencing disproportionate rates of cancer and disease because of oil drilling in their neighborhoods, Indigenous communities throughout the United States are having to deal with high cancer rates following decades of toxic waste dumping on Indigenous land, while the Standing Rock Sioux and the Wet’suwet’en and many other Indigenous groups have had to deal with oil spills upon their ancestral land after dangerous pipelines were forced upon them. Environmental racism is just one type of pervasive consent violation that emerges in a system that prioritizes capital’s replication rather than consent.

Likewise, consent is violated for everyone through the destruction of ecological wealth and climate stability brought on by the concerted actions of the for-profit petroleum industry. If the people of Paradise, CA, or Malden, WA, or Phoenix, OR had known that their entire towns would burn to the ground because of escalating carbon emissions, they likely would not have consented to the escalation of carbon emissions.  The same might be said for everyone under the age of 30 at this point, a group rapidly losing any hope of a future without horrific social and ecological disasters each day greenhouse gas emissions are not cut to zero.

Imagine a consent-based economy

Imagine what would happen if consent, rather than capital, was at the center of our economy?  Imagine if the courts no longer prioritized capital, but prioritized consent?

Dr. Grace Demolino at UC Davis is currently teaching an undergraduate class on consent, and here is a diagram of consent that has been used in her class:

One of the main focuses of her class is the question, “What makes consent valid?” As we move towards a consent-based economy, this is an important question to ask.

Consent cannot be valid if it is coerced or forced.

Consent cannot be valid if it is coerced or forced. Additionally, to be able to consent, a person needs to be adequately informed about what they are consenting to. This means they need access to all of the information, and it needs to be represented in a way that is truly accessible and easy to understand. But also, sometimes even informed consent may be unethical, for example, the “Terms of Service” that we often sign online that allow companies to gather and sell our personal data to unspecified 3rd parties—if the typical internet user were to personally read all of these, it would take a full month of their time each year, 8 hours a day. No one has time for that, so this clearly isn’t valid consent.

Consent economics allows us to think through a number of systemic issues within our society that are oppressive to whole groups and to center these groups’ consent, rather than treating it as an afterthought.

Likewise, consent becomes less valid when asymmetrical power relations are at play. For example, because women—in particular women of color—are asymmetrically disempowered through the wage gap (i.e., women make 79 cents to the white man’s dollar, Black women make 63 cents to the white man’s dollar, Indigenous women make 59 cents to the white man’s dollar, and if a woman is trans, these numbers are nearly cut in half) it reduces their ability to give valid consent. Because women are more likely to find themselves with less access to money, it disproportionately puts women in the precarious position of feeling pressured to sometimes consent to things they don’t want to do. In this way, the legitimacy of consent between romantic partners of different genders is thrown into question, and the need to remove these forms of systemic oppression is thrown into focus.

Consent economics allows us to think through a number of systemic issues within our society that are oppressive to whole groups and to center these groups’ consent, rather than treating it as an afterthought. A consent economy would also prioritize staying within what scientists at the NOAA call The Planetary Carbon Budget, so as to ensure future generations are not trapped with awful conditions they didn’t consent to.  If the courts prioritized consent before capital, so much could be solved quickly. But this must start with a narrative shift from the ground up. The overly simplified idea is this: Replace the logic of capital with the logic of consent, like this:

Indiana Jones replaces the idol in the temple of doom.

Sure, in the case of Indiana Jones, the temple collapses around him the moment the golden idol is removed, nearly crushing him. But worth considering: the temple collapses! Perhaps the true face of capital all along was that it was nothing more than a set of tricks and tactics used to streamline the violation of consent. What would an economics look like that centers free and prior informed consent?

Perhaps the true face of capital all along was that it was nothing more than a set of tricks and tactics used to streamline the violation of consent.

In transitioning to a consent economy, each sector of the economy would need to be evaluated, sector by sector, to ensure that its operations did not impede upon the consent of others. For example, the energy sector and the transportation sector have been found to fail to achieve consent while operating under the logic of capital. Other sectors whose operations impede upon consent when they are organized by the logic of capital include prisons, military, education, medicine, and housing. To transition to a consent economy, the logic of capital must to be removed from these sectors and they need to be de-privatized. However, some economic sectors might be able to continue to operate under the logic of capital, with a few modifications. For example, the entertainment sectors (film, video games, magazines, etc) might be able to remain operating under a mostly capitalist logic, with a level of speculative investment at play, but factors that violate different kinds of consent would still need to be removed.

Towards consent in the workplace

In a consent economy, workplaces themselves would also need to be evaluated and organized around principles of consent. Many workplaces are presently dominated by a coercive logic in which workers are robbed of decision-making power, of ownership over what they produce, and ownership of the tools to produce it. In a consent-based economy, models of consensual and democratic decision-making would be used by worker-owners to manage their own workplaces, with workers having control over how and when they work, what they produce, and how they co-create the models of production within a given workplace. Work in such an economy would radically shift towards being an occasion to create meaningful experiences for workers, with automation valued for its ability to alleviate meaningless toil, while environmental consent would be weighed in all aspects of the production process.

For such workplaces to truly be consensual, the logic of compulsory labor would need to be removed from the economy, to ensure that workers work because they want to, not because they are being forced by pervasive artificial conditions that compel unnecessary labor. This places importance upon the cultivation of commonly held and publicly accessible spaces for things like food production, sharing computer code, etc. Creative engagement will be necessary to develop, strategize, and maintain commonly held infrastructure that removes artificial scarcity that is presently used to compel labor by removing the conditions for consent.

There is definitely a time limit at play—there are less than 10 years left before we need to reduce humanity’s net carbon emissions to 50%. The push for a consent economy is just one of many tactics that may help us rapidly put an end to environmental racism, climate chaos, and many other forms of social and ecological harm that currently wreak havoc on our communities and ecosystems.

Within a consent economy, consent would also be centered in workplaces, community spaces, and relationships, with community members being ready to actively intervene and mitigate harm when survivors come forward to report non-consensual abusive behaviors. This means communities must do the work (before abuse happens) of proactively implementing adjudication processes that center survivors. Such processes remove those accused of engaging in abusive behavior from the spaces that survivors interact with, a move that allows survivors to heal while also preventing abusive behaviors from becoming a means to achieve hegemony with a given space.

What happens when we center consent within our institutions? What happens when we prioritize consent in our media and storytelling? What happens when we teach consent as a value to the next generation? There is definitely a time limit at play—there are less than 10 years left before we need to reduce humanity’s net carbon emissions to 50%. The push for a consent economy is just one of many tactics that may help us rapidly put an end to environmental racism, climate chaos, and many other forms of social and ecological harm that currently wreak havoc on our communities and ecosystems. 

The effort to center consent within our economy will surely be an adventure, one that will take care, cleverness, courage, humor, and the ability to collaborate and also rest.

Supplemental Reading

  • Indigenous scholar Kyle White has written about consent from a variety of angles that pertain to law and scientific practice. His work may be read for free on his academia.edu page.
  • The book Sexual Consent by Milena Popova (The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series, 2019) breaks down sexual consent from a social, legal, historical, and mutual aid standpoint. Everyone should read this book by the time they finish high school, and it offers a framework that might be used to think through other types of consent.
  • South African scholar Lesley Green has just released a book that thinks through an alternative approach to removing the logic of capital from our relations. The book is called Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Duke University Press, 2020). While focusing on South Africa, this work models a relationship-based approach to non-capitalist economics any region might work to foster.

This article first appeared in Slingshot, Issue #133.

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