Sacred Economics: Chapter 5, "The Corpse of the Commons" (Pt. 6)
The following is the sixth installment from Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition, available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. You can read the Introduction here, and visit the Sacred Economics homepage here.
We cry shame on the feudal baron who forbade the peasant to turn a clod of earth unless he surrendered to his lord a fourth of his crop. We call those the barbarous times. But if the forms have changed, the relations have remained the same, and the worker is forced, under the name of free contract, to accept feudal obligations. For, turn where he will, he can find no better conditions. Everything has become private property, and he must accept, or die of hunger. --Peter Kropotkin
At the foundation of every great fortune lies a great crime. --Leo Tolstoy
Despite land's obvious independence of human effort for its existence, land is not so different from any other kind of property. Let us first consider material property -- anything made of metal, wood, plastic, plants or animals, minerals, and so on. Are these anything other than pieces of the earth, altered through the application of human effort? The distinction between land and improvements thereupon -- the distinction between that which already exists and that which human effort creates -- is no more or less valid for land than for any other material good. All that we use and all that we own consists of modified bits of earth. Together they are "natural capital" -- the wealth and goodness that nature has bequeathed upon us. Originally none of it was property; it came into that realm as technology lengthened our grasp and the mentality of separation intensified our will to own. Today, forms of natural capital that we barely knew existed have become property: the electromagnetic spectrum, sequences of DNA, and, indirectly, ecological diversity and the earth's capacity to absorb industrial waste.1
Whether it has been made into a direct subject of property, as in land, oil, and trees, or whether it is still a commons that we draw on to create other property, such as the open sea, the original Great Commons has been sold off: converted first into property and then into money. It is this final step that confirms that something has indeed completed its metamorphosis into property. To be able to freely buy and sell something means that it has been dissociated from its original matrix of relationships; in other words, that it has become "alienable." That is why money has become a proxy for land and all other property, and why charging rental (interest) for its use bears the same effects and partakes of the same ancient injustice as does charging rent on land.
Cultural and Spiritual Capital
Natural capital is one of four broad categories of the commonwealth that also comprises social, cultural, and spiritual capital. Each consists of things that were once free, part of self-sufficiency or the gift economy, that we now pay for. The robbery then is not from mother earth, but from mother culture.
The most familiar of these other forms of capital in the economic discourse is cultural capital, which goes by the term intellectual property. In former times, the vast fund of stories, ideas, songs, artistic motifs, images, and technical inventions formed a commons that everyone could draw upon for pleasure and productivity, or incorporate into yet other innovations. In the Middle Ages, minstrels would listen to each other's songs and borrow new tunes that they liked, modify them, and circulate them back into the commons of music. Today artists and their corporate sponsors scramble to copyright and protect each new creation, and vigorously prosecute anyone who tries to incorporate those songs into their own. The same happens in every creative sphere.2
The moral justification for intellectual property is, again, "If I am my own, and my labor power belongs to me, then what I make is mine." But even granting the premise that "I am my own," the implicit assumption that artistic and intellectual creations arise ex nihilo from the mind of the creator, independent of cultural context, is absurd. Any intellectual creation (including this book) draws on bits and pieces of the sea of culture around us, and from the fund of images, melodies, and ideas that are deeply imprinted upon the human psyche, or perhaps even innate to it. As Lewis Mumford puts it, "A patent is a device that enables one man to claim special financial rewards for being the last link in the complicated social process that produced the invention."3 The same is true of songs, stories, and all other cultural innovations. By making them private property, we are walling off something that is not ours. We are stealing from the cultural commons. And because, like land, pieces of the cultural commons are themselves productive of continued wealth, this theft is an ongoing crime that contributes to the divide between the haves and the have-nots, the owners and the renters, the creditors and the debtors. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin made this general point eloquently:
Every machine has had the same history -- a long record of sleepless nights and of poverty, of disillusions and of joys, of partial improvements discovered by several generations of nameless workers, who have added to the original invention these little nothings, without which the most fertile idea would remain fruitless. More than that: every new invention is a synthesis, the resultant of innumerable inventions which have preceded it in the vast field of mechanics and industry.
Science and industry, knowledge and application, discovery and practical realization leading to new discoveries, cunning of brain and of hand, toil of mind and muscle-all work together. Each discovery, each advance, each increase in the sum of human riches, owes its being to the physical and mental travail of the past and the present.
By what right then can any one whatever appropriate the least morsel of this immense whole and say -- This is mine, not yours?4
Such considerations inform my desire to make my books freely available online and to forgo some of the normal copyrights. I could not have written this book outside a vast organic matrix of ideas, a commonwealth of cultural capital that I cannot rightfully enclose.5
Spiritual capital is more subtle. It refers to our mental and sensuous capacities, for example, the ability to concentrate, to create worlds of the imagination, and to derive pleasure from experiencing life. When I was young, in the very last days before television and video games came to dominate American childhood, we created our own worlds with intricate story lines, practicing the psychic technologies that adults can use to fashion their lives and their collective reality: forming a vision, telling a story around that vision that assigns meanings and roles, playing out those roles, and so on. Today, those worlds of the imagination come prefabricated from TV studios and software companies, and children wander through cheap, gaudy, often violent worlds created by distant strangers. These come with prefabricated images as well, and the ability to form their own images (we call this ability imagination) atrophies. Unable to envision a new world, the child grows up accustomed to accepting whatever reality is handed her.6 Could this, perhaps, be contributing to the political passivity of the American public?
Another depletion of spiritual capital comes via the intense sensory stimulation of electronic media. Modern action films, for instance, are so fast-paced, so loud, so grossly stimulating, that older movies seem boring in comparison, not to mention books or the world of nature. Despite my best efforts to limit their exposure to modern excesses, my children can barely stand to watch any film made before 1975. Once habituated to intense stimulation, in its absence we get the withdrawal symptom we call boredom. We become dependent, and therefore must pay to acquire something that was once available simply by virtue of being alive. A baby or a hunter-gatherer will be fascinated by the slow processes of nature: a twig floating on the water, a bee visiting a flower, and other things that are beyond the anemic attentiveness of modern adults. Just as the Roman coloni had to pay to use the land they needed to survive, so also must most people today pay the owners of the processes, media, and capital necessary to create the extreme sensory stimulation that they need to feel alive.
It may not be readily apparent that spiritual capital constitutes a commons. What has really been appropriated here is a locus of attention. The capabilities of the human mind that I call spiritual capital do not exist in isolation; it is our upbringing, our nurture, our cultural surroundings that foster and direct them. Our ability to imagine and to obtain sensory fulfillment is to a great degree a collective ability, one today that we can no longer exercise from the freely available sources of mind and nature, but must purchase from their new owners.
The collective attention of the human race is a commons like the land or the air. Like them, it is a raw material of human creativity. To make a tool, to do any work, to do anything at all requires that one place attention on that task rather than on some other. The ubiquity of advertising and media in our society is a co-optation of the collective human attention, and a depletion of our divine bequest. On the road, everywhere my eyes turn, there is a billboard. On the subway, on the internet, on the street, commercial messages reach out to "capture" our attention. They infiltrate our very thoughts, our narratives, our inner dialog, and via these, our emotions, desires, and beliefs, turning all toward the making of product and profit. Our attention is hardly our own anymore, so easily do the powers of politics and commerce manipulate it.
After it has been so long manipulated, chopped up, habituated to intense stimuli, and jerked around from one lurid but empty object to another, our attention is so fragmented we cannot sustain it long enough to create anything independent of the programs that surround us. We lose our capacity to sustain thought, understand nuance, and put ourselves in another person's shoes. Susceptible to any simplistic narrative with immediate emotional appeal, we are easy targets not just for advertising, but for propaganda, demagoguery, and fascism. In various ways, all of these serve the money power.
The Strip-Mining of Community
The most important type of capital for purposes of this discussion is social capital. Social capital refers primarily to relationships and skills, the "services" that people once provided for themselves and each other in a gift economy, such as cooking, child care, health care, hospitality, entertainment, advice, and the growing of food, making of clothes, and building of houses. As recently as one or two generations ago, many of these functions were far less commoditized than they are today. When I was a child, most people I knew seldom ate at restaurants, and neighbors took care of each other's children after school. Technology has been instrumental in bringing human relationships into the realm of "services," just as it has brought deeper and more obscure pieces of the earth into the realm of goods. For example, the technology of the phonograph and radio helped turn music from something people made for themselves into something they paid for. Storage and transportation technologies have done the same for food processing. In general, the fine division of labor that accompanies technology has made us dependent on strangers for most of the things we use, and makes it unlikely that our neighbors depend on us for anything we produce. Economic ties thus become divorced from social ties, leaving us with little to offer our neighbors and little occasion to know them.
The monetization of social capital is the strip-mining of community. It should not be surprising that money is deeply implicated in the disintegration of community, because money is the epitome of the impersonal. Convert two distinct forests into money, and they become the same. Applied to cultures, the same principle is fast creating a global monoculture where every service is a paid service. When money mediates all our relationships, we too lose our uniqueness to become a standard consumer of standard goods and services, and a standard functionary performing other services. No personal economic relationships are important because we can always "pay someone else to do it." No wonder, strive as we might, we find it so hard to create community. No wonder we feel so insecure, so replaceable. It is all because of the conversion, driven, as we shall see, by interest, of the unique and sacred into the monetized and generic. In The Ascent of Humanity I wrote,
"We don't really need each other." ... What better description could there be of the loss of community in today's world? We don't really need each other. We don't need to know the person who grows, ships, and processes our food, makes our clothing, builds our house, creates our music, makes or fixes our car; we don't even need to know the person who takes care of our babies while we are at work. We are dependent on the role, but only incidentally on the person fulfilling that role. Whatever it is, we can just pay someone to do it (or pay someone else to do it) as long as we have money. And how do we get money? By performing some other specialized role that, more likely than not, amounts to someone paying us to do something for them...
The necessities of life have been given over to specialists, leaving us with nothing meaningful to do (outside our own area of expertise) but to entertain ourselves. Meanwhile, whatever functions of daily living that remain to us are mostly solitary functions: driving places, buying things, paying bills, cooking convenience foods, doing housework. None of these demand the help of neighbors, relatives, or friends. We wish we were closer to our neighbors; we think of ourselves as friendly people who would gladly help them. But there is little to help them with. In our house-boxes, we are self-sufficient. Or rather, we are self-sufficient in relation to the people we know but dependent as never before on total strangers living thousands of miles away.
The commoditization of social relationships leaves us with nothing to do together but to consume. Joint consumption does nothing to build community because it requires no gifts. I think the oft-lamented vacuity of most social gatherings arises from the inchoate knowledge, "I don't need you." I don't need you to help me consume food, drink, drugs, or entertainment. Consumption calls upon no one's gifts, calls forth none of anyone's true being. Community and intimacy cannot come from joint consumption, but only from giving and cocreativity.
When libertarians invoke the sanctity of private property, they unintentionally create a need for the very Big Government they so despise. For in the absence of community bonds, the atomized individuals that remain depend on remote authority -- a legally constituted state-for many of the social functions that community structures once fulfilled: security, dispute resolution, and the allocation of collective social capital. The propertization and privatization of the economic realm leaves us, to coin a phrase, helplessly independent-independent of anyone we know, and dependent on impersonal, coercive institutions that govern from afar.
When I ask people what is missing most from their lives, the most common answer is "community." But how can we build community when its building blocks-the things we do for each other-have all been converted into money? Community is woven from gifts. Unlike money or barter transactions, in which there are no obligations remaining after the transaction, gifts always imply future gifts. When we receive, we owe; gratitude is the knowledge of having received and the desire to give in turn. But what is there now to give? Not the necessities of life, not food, shelter, or clothing, not entertainment, not stories, not health care: everyone buys these. Hence the urge to get away from it all, to return to a more self-sufficient life where we build our own houses and grow our own food and make our own clothes, in community. Yet while there is value in this movement, I doubt that many people will start doing things the hard way again just in order to have community. There is another solution besides reversing the specialization of labor and the machine-based efficiency of the modern age, and it springs from the fact that money does not meet many of our needs at all. Very important needs go unmet today, and money, because of its impersonal nature, is incapable of meeting them. The community of the future will arise from the needs that money inherently cannot meet.
You can see now why I call money "the corpse of the commons." The conversion of natural, cultural, social, and spiritual capital into money is the fulfillment of its power, described by Richard Seaford, to homogenize all that it touches. "In reducing individuality to homogeneous impersonality," he writes, "the power of money resembles the power of death."7 Indeed, when every forest has been converted into board feet, when every ecosystem has been paved over, when every human relationship has been replaced by a service, the very processes of planetary and social life will cease. All that will be left is cold, dead money, as forewarned by the myth of King Midas so many centuries ago. We will be dead-but very, very rich.
The Creation of Needs
Economists would say that such things as phonographs and bulldozers and the rest of technology have enriched us, creating new goods and services that did not exist before. On a deep level, though, the human needs these things meet are nothing new. They just meet them in a different way-a way that we must now pay for.
Consider telecommunications. Human beings do not have an abstract need for long-distance communication. We have a need to stay in contact with people with whom we share emotional and economic ties. In past times, these people were usually close by. A hunter-gatherer or fourteenth-century Russian peasant would have had little use for a telephone. Telephones began to meet a need only when other developments in technology and culture spread human beings farther apart and splintered extended families and local communities. So the basic need they meet is not something new under the sun.
Consider another technological offering, one to which my children, to my great consternation, seem irresistibly attracted: massively multiplayer online fantasy role-playing games. The need these meet is not anything new either. Preteens and teenagers have a strong need to go exploring, to have adventures, and to establish an identity via interactions with peers that reference this exploration and adventure. In past times, this happened in the actual outdoors. When I was a child we had nothing like the freedom of generations before us, as you might read about in Tom Sawyer, yet still my friends and I would sometimes wander for miles, to a creek or an unused quarry pit, an undeveloped hilltop, the train tracks. Today, one rarely finds groups of kids roaming around, when every bit of land is fenced and marked with no-trespassing signs, when society is obsessed with safety, and when children are overscheduled and driven to perform. Technology and culture have robbed children of something they deeply need-and then, in the form of video games, sold it back to them.
I remember the day I realized what was happening. I happened to watch an episode of the Pokémon television show, which is basically about three kids roaming around having magical adventures. These on-screen, fictitious, trademarked characters were having the magical adventures that real children once had but now must pay (via advertising) for the privilege of watching. As a result, GDP has grown. New "goods and services" (by definition, things that are part of the money economy) have been created, replacing functions that were once fulfilled for free.
A little reflection reveals that nearly every good and service available today meets needs that were once met for free. What about medical technology? Compare our own poor health with the marvelous health enjoyed by hunter-gatherers and primitive agriculturalists, and it is clear that we are purchasing, at great expense, our ability to physically function. Child care? Food processing? Transportation? The textile industry? Space does not permit me to analyze each of these for what necessities have been stolen and sold back to us. I will offer one more piece of evidence for my view: if the growth of money really were driving the technological and cultural meeting of new needs, then wouldn't we be more fulfilled than any humans before us?
Are people happier now, more fulfilled, for having films rather than tribal storytellers, MP3 players rather than gatherings around the piano? Are we happier eating mass-produced food rather than that from a neighbor's field or our own garden? Are people happier living in prefab units or McMansions than they were in old New England stone farmhouses or wigwams? Are we happier? Has any new need been met?
Even if it has not, I won't discard the entire corpus of technology, despite all the ruin it has wrought upon nature and humanity. In fact, the achievements of science and technology do meet important needs, needs that are key drivers of sacred economics. They include the need to explore, to play, to know, and to create what we in the New Economy movement call "really cool stuff." In a sacred economy, science, technology, and the specialization of labor that goes along with them will continue to be among the agents for the meeting of these needs. We can see this higher purpose of science and technology already, like a recessive gene that crops up irrepressibly in spite of its endless commercialization. It is in the heart of every true scientist and inventor: the spirit of wonder, excitement, and the thrill of novelty. Every institution of the old world has a counterpart in the new, the same note at another octave. We are not calling for a revolution that will eradicate the old and create the new from scratch. That kind of revolution has been tried before, with the same results each time, because that mentality is itself part of the old world. Sacred economics is part of a different kind of revolution entirely, a transformation and not a purge. In this revolution, the losers won't even realize they have lost.
Up until today, very few of the products of our economy and technology have served the aforementioned needs. Not only are our needs for play, exploration, and wonder underfulfilled, but great anxiety and struggle accompany even the meeting of our physical needs. This contradicts economists' assertion that even if no new needs have been met, technology and the division of labor allow us to meet existing needs more efficiently. A machine, it is said, can do the work of a thousand men; a computer can coordinate the work of a thousand machines. Accordingly, futurists since the eighteenth century have predicted an imminent age of leisure. That age has never arrived, and indeed has seemed in the last thirty-five years to recede even farther into the distance. Something obviously is not working.
One of the two primary assumptions of economics is that human beings normally act in their rational self-interest and that this self-interest corresponds to money. Two people will only make an exchange (e.g., buying something for money) if it benefits both to do so. The more exchanges that are happening, then, the more benefits are being had. Economists therefore associate money with Benthamite "utility" -- that is, the good. That is one reason why economic growth is the unquestioned holy grail of economic policy -- when the economy grows, the world's supposed goodness level rises. What politician wouldn't want to take credit for economic growth?
Economic logic says that when a new good or service comes into being, the fact that someone is willing to pay for it means that it must be to someone's benefit. In a certain narrow sense, this is true. If I steal your car keys, it may be to your benefit to buy them back from me. If I steal your land, it may be to your benefit to rent it back so you can survive. But to say that money transactions are evidence of an overall rise in utility is absurd; or rather, it assumes that the needs they meet were originally unmet. If we are merely paying for something once provided through self-sufficiency or the gift economy, then the logic of economic growth is faulty. Herein lies a hidden ideological motivation for the assumption that primitive life was, in Hobbes's words, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Such a past would justify the present, which actually bears all of Hobbes's qualities in various ways. What is life in the Great Indoors of suburbia, if not solitary? What is life in equatorial Africa, if not short?8 And has any age rivaled the last century in its nastiness and brutality? Perhaps the Hobbesian view that the past was a harsh survival struggle is an ideological projection of our own condition.
For the economy to grow, the realm of money-denominated goods and services must grow too. Money must meet more and more of our needs. Gross domestic product, after all, is defined as the sum total of the goods and services a nation produces. Only those exchanged for money count.
If I babysit your children for free, economists don't count it as a service or add it to GDP. It cannot be used to pay a financial debt; nor can I go to the supermarket and say, "I watched my neighbors' kids this morning, so please give me food." But if I open a day care center and charge you money, I have created a "service." GDP rises and, according to economists, society has become wealthier. I have grown the economy and raised the world's level of goodness. "Goods" are those things you pay money for. Money = Good. That has been the equation of our time.
The same is true if I cut down a forest and sell the timber. While it is still standing and inaccessible, it is not a good. It only becomes "good" when I build a logging road, hire labor, cut it down, and transport it to a buyer. I convert a forest to timber, a commodity, and GDP goes up. Similarly, if I create a new song and share it for free, GDP does not go up and society is not considered wealthier, but if I copyright it and sell it, it becomes a good. Or I can find a traditional society that uses herbs and shamanic techniques for healing, destroy their culture and make them dependent on pharmaceutical medicine that they must purchase, evict them from their land so they cannot be subsistence farmers and must buy food, and clear the land and hire them on a banana plantation-and I have made the world richer. I have brought various functions, relationships, and natural resources into the realm of money.
Any time someone pays for anything she once received as a gift or did herself, the world's "goodness" level rises. Each tree cut down and made into paper, each idea captured and made into intellectual property, each child who uses video games instead of creating worlds of the imagination, each human relationship turned into a paid service, depletes a bit of the natural, cultural, spiritual, and social commons and converts it into money.
It is true that it is more efficient (in terms of labor-hours) for day care professionals to care for three dozen kids than for a bunch of stay-at-home parents to do it themselves. It is also more efficient to farm thousand-acre fields with megatractors and chemicals than it is to raise the same amount of food on a hundred small holdings using hand tools. But all this efficiency has neither given us more leisure nor met any fundamentally new need. The efficiency ends up meeting the old needs in endless, obscene elaboration, eventually reaching the extreme of closets full of clothes and shoes that are barely worn before entering the landfill.
The limited character of human needs presented problems from the very beginning of the industrial era, appearing first in the textile industry. After all, how many garments does one person really need? The solution to the looming crisis of overproduction was to manipulate people into overfulfilling their need for clothes. Enter the fashion industry, which, in a surprisingly conscious and cynical way, encouraged would-be dandies to stay up with the fashions. Part of the reason that people embraced this is because clothing occupies a special place in all cultures, fulfilling various sacred, joyful, somber, and playful needs and contributing greatly to the deeper need for social identity. It is as natural to adorn our bodies as it is to spice our food. The point is that no new need was being fulfilled. More and more production is devoted toward meeting the same need, endlessly elaborated.
Moreover, the same industrialization that brought the mass production of textiles also caused the social disintegration that shattered traditional communities and made people susceptible to the fashion industry. I described this in a somewhat broader context in The Ascent of Humanity:
To introduce consumerism to a previously isolated culture it is first necessary to destroy its sense of identity. Here's how: Disrupt its networks of reciprocity by introducing consumer items from the outside. Erode its self-esteem with glamorous images of the West. Demean its mythologies through missionary work and scientific education. Dismantle its traditional ways of transmitting local knowledge by introducing schooling with outside curricula. Destroy its language by providing that schooling in English or another national or world language. Truncate its ties to the land by importing cheap food to make local agriculture uneconomic. Then you will have created a people hungry for the right sneaker.
The crisis of overproduction that occurs when one need has been generally fulfilled is resolved by exporting it onto some other need. An equivalent way of looking at it is that one type after another of natural, social, cultural, and spiritual commonwealth is converted into property and money. When the social capital of clothes-making (i.e., the skills and traditions and the means for their transmission) is turned into a commodity, and no one is making clothes outside the money economy any more, then it is time to sell even more clothes by destroying other identity-sustaining social structures. Identity becomes a commodity, and clothes and other consumer items its proxy.
The social ecology of the gift -- the shared skills, customs, and social structures that meet each other's needs -- is just as rich a source of wealth, and bears just as many veins of treasure, as do the natural ecology and the earth underlying it. The question is, what happens when all of these forms of common capital are tapped out? What happens when there are no more fish to turn into seafood, no more forests to turn into paper, no more topsoil to turn into corn syrup, no longer anything people do for each other for free?
On the face of it, this should not be a crisis at all. Why must we keep growing? If all our needs are met with increasing efficiency, why can't we just work less? Why has the promised age of leisure never arrived? As we shall see, in our present money system, it will never arrive. No new technological wonder will be enough. The money system we have inherited will always compel us to choose growth over leisure.
One might say that money has met one need that was truly unmet before -- the need for the human species to grow and to operate on a scale of millions or billions. Our need for food, music, stories, medicine, and so forth may be no more satisfied than in the Stone Age, but we can, for the first time, create things that require the coordinated efforts of millions of specialists around the globe. Money has facilitated the development of a metahuman organism of seven billion cells, the collective body of the human species. It is like a signaling molecule, coordinating the contributions of individuals and organizations toward purposes that no smaller grouping could ever achieve. All the needs that money has created or transferred from the personal to the standard and generic have been part of this organismic development. Even the fashion industry has been part of it, as a means for creating identity and a sense of belonging extending across vast social distances.
Like a multicellular organism, humanity as a collective being needs organs, subsystems, and the means to coordinate them. Money, along with symbolic culture, communication technology, education, and so forth, has been instrumental in developing these. It has also been like a growth hormone, both stimulating growth and governing the expression of that growth. Today, it seems, we are reaching the limits of growth, and therefore the end of humanity's childhood. All of our organs are fully formed; some, indeed, have outlived their usefulness and may revert to vestigial form. We are maturing. Perhaps we are about to turn our newfound creative power of billions towards its mature purpose. Perhaps, accordingly, we need a different kind of money, one that continues to coordinate the vastly complex metahuman organism but no longer compels it to grow.
The Money Power
All of the myriad forms of property today have one defining feature in common: all of them can be bought and sold for money. All are the equivalent of money, for whoever owns money can own any other form of capital and the productive power that goes along with it. And each of these forms, remember, arose from the commons, was once unowned by any person, and was eventually stripped from the commons and made property. The same thing that happened to land has happened to everything else and has brought the same concentration of wealth and power in the hands of those who own it. As the early Christian fathers, Proudhon, Marx, and George knew, it is immoral to rob someone of his property and then make him pay you to use it. Yet that is what happens any time you charge rent on land or interest on money. No accident, then, that nearly all world religions impose prohibitions on usury. Someone should not benefit from merely owning what existed before ownership, and money today is the embodiment of all that existed before ownership, the distilled essence of property.
However, the anti-interest money systems I will propose and describe in this book are not motivated by mere morality. Interest is more than just the proceeds of a crime, more even than the ongoing income from a crime already committed. It is also the engine of continued robbery; it is a force that compels us all, however kind in our intentions, into willing or unwilling complicity in the strip-mining of the earth.
In my travels, firstly my inward journeying and then as a speaker and writer, I have oft encountered a deep anguish and helplessness borne of the ubiquity of the world-devouring machine and of the near-impossibility of avoiding participation in it. To give one example among millions, people who rage against Wal-Mart still shop there, or at other stores equally a part of the global predation chain, because they feel they cannot afford to pay double the price or to do without. And what of the electricity that powers my house -- coal ripped out of the tops of mountains? What of the gas that gets me places and gets deliveries to me if I go "off-grid"? I can minimize my participation in the world-devouring machine, but I cannot avoid it entirely. As people become aware that merely living in society means contributing to the evils of the world, they often go through a phase of desiring to find a completely isolated and self-sufficient intentional community -- but what good does that do, while Rome burns? So what, if you are not contributing your little part to the pollution that is overwhelming the earth? It proceeds apace whether you live in the forest and eat roots and berries or in a suburb and eat food trucked in from California.9 The desire for personal exculpation from the sins of society is a kind of fetish, akin to solar panels on a 4,000-square-foot house.
Laudable though the impulse may be, movements to boycott Wal-Mart or reform health care or education or politics or anything else quickly become exercises in futility as they run up against the money power. To make any impact at all feels like a grueling upstream swim, and as soon as we rest, some new outrage, some new horror sweeps us away again, some new stripping of nature, community, health, or spirit for the sake of money.
What, exactly, is this "money power"? It is not, as it sometimes may seem, an evil cabal of bankers controlling the world through the Bilderberg Council, the Trilateral Commission, and other instruments of the "Illuminati." In my travels and correspondence, I sometimes run into people who have read books by David Icke and others that make a persuasive case for an ancient global conspiracy dedicated to a "New World Order," symbolized by the all-seeing eye atop the pyramid, controlling every government and every institution, and run behind the scenes by a small, secret coterie of power-hungry monsters who count even the Rothschilds and Rockefellers among their puppets. I must be very naive, or very ignorant, not to comprehend the true nature of the problem.
While I confess to being naive, I am not ignorant. I have read much of this material and come away unsatisfied. While it is clear that there is much more to such events as 9/11 and the Kennedy assassinations than we have been told, and that the financial industry, organized crime, and political power are closely interlinked, I find that generally speaking, conspiracy theories give too much credit to the ability of humans to successfully manage and control complex systems. Something mysterious is certainly going on, and the "coincidences" that people like Icke cite defy conventional explanation, but if you'll allow a moment's indulgence in metaphysics, I think ultimately what is happening is that our deep ideologies and belief systems, and their unconscious shadows, generate a matrix of synchronicities that looks very much like a conspiracy. It is in fact a conspiracy with no conspirators. Everyone is a puppet, but there are no puppet-masters.
Moreover, the appeal of conspiracy theories, which are usually nonfalsifiable, is just as much psychological as it is empirical. Conspiracy theories have a dark allure because they tap into our primal outrage and identify something onto which to channel it, something to blame and something to hate. Unfortunately, as numerous revolutionaries have discovered when they topple the oligarchs, our hatred is misplaced. The true culprit is much deeper and much more pervasive. It transcends conscious human agency, and even the bankers and oligarchs live under its thrall. The true culprit is the alien overlords that rule the world from their flying saucers. Just kidding.10 The true culprit, the true puppet-master that manipulates our elites from behind the scenes, is the money system itself: a credit-based, interest-driven system that arises from the ancient, rising tide of separation; that generates competition, polarization, and greed; that compels endless exponential growth; and, most importantly, that is coming to an end in our time as the fuel for that growth-social, natural, cultural, and spiritual capital-runs out.
The next few chapters describe this process and the dynamics of interest, reframing the current economic crisis as the culmination of a trend centuries in the making. Thus revealed, we can better understand how to create not just a new money system, but a new kind of money system, one that has the opposite effects of ours today: sharing instead of greed, equality instead of polarization, enrichment of the commons instead of its stripping, and sustainability instead of growth. As well, this new kind of money system will embody an even deeper shift that we see happening today, a shift in human identity toward a connected self, bound to all being in the circle of the gift. Any money that is part of this Reunion, this Great Turning, surely deserves to be called sacred.
1. Pollution credits and similar schemes seek to convert the earth's absorptive capacity into property. Even without them, however, it is already an invisible, embedded component of every manufactured product, an essential input of which there is a limited supply. Even without explicit property rights, this absorptive capacity is being taken from the commons.
2. Filmmakers, for instance, need entire "rights clearance" legal departments in order to make sure they haven't inadvertently used some copyrighted image in their movie. These could include images of designer furniture, buildings, brand logos, and clothing-almost everything in the built environment. The result has been to stifle creativity and relegate much of the most interesting art illegal. (This is inevitable when art uses the stuff of life around us for its subject and that stuff is in the realm of property already.)
3. Mumford, Technics and Civilization, 142. Of course, the person at the last stage of the invention process deserves reward for his or her ingenuity and toil, but the social context must also be acknowledged. This is decreasingly the case as patent and copyright periods have expanded from their original decade or two to, in some cases, upwards of a century.
4. Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, chapter 1.
5. A detailed discussion of intellectual property rights is beyond the scope of this book. Certainly, I have made a contribution to this matrix of ideas (at least I think I have!) and deserve to be sustained in my work. However, to prevent other people from incorporating my writing and other creations into new creations of their own feels miserly. Practically speaking, I advocate a broad expansion of the "fair use" doctrine and a dramatic shortening of the term for copyrights and patents.
6. Or she accepts no reality at all, discounting everything as just so many images and symbols. On the one hand, this allows her to "see through the bullshit." On the other hand, it leaves her cynical and jaded.
7. Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind, 157.
8. Modern life is short, too: despite relatively long life spans, life seems short to a busy, hurried person.
9. Nonetheless, the efforts people are making to reduce their complicity in the wrecking of the world are very important on the level of ritual. Ritual consists of the manipulation of symbols in order to affect reality-even money is an implement of ritual-and therefore wield great practical power. So please don't allow my words to dissuade you from boycotting Wal-Mart. For a deeper discussion, see my essay "Rituals for Lover Earth" online, preferably after having read through Chapter 8 of this book.
10. Well, not entirely. The imputation of nefarious control to extraterrestrial or demonic entities encodes a valid insight: that the source of evil in our world is beyond conscious human agency. There are puppet-masters, but they are systems and ideologies, not people. As for extraterrestrials, I have trouble answering the question of whether I "believe in them." Perhaps the question of whether they "exist" smuggles in ontological assumptions that aren't true, especially that there is an objective backdrop in which things objectively either exist or do not exist. So usually I just say "yes."
Image by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo, courtesy of Creative Commons license.