Rethinking What’s Been Thunk

The following is a chapter from Money, Sex, Power & Faith.

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“If you understand others, you are smart. If you understand yourself ,you are illuminated. If you overcome others, you are powerful. If you overcome yourself, you have strength. If you know how to be satisfied, you are rich. If you can act with vigor, you have a will. If you don’t lose your objectives, you can be long-lasting. If you die without loss, you are eternal.” – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

As we’ve developed this thing we refer to as “society” over the last ten thousand years, we’ve certainly come to embrace our share of memes. Yet to grow into a people, we’ve got to reconsider some of the ideas that we take for granted, as many of them do not serve our best interests. While we can certainly still hold dearly to the principles that our beliefs point toward, it would serve us well to comprehend that any belief we hold may have just started as a rolling pebble of an opinion that snowballed its way into mainstream tradition, whether it be a notion of religion, politics, gender roles, or economics.

For instance, considering that the vast majority of this stuff we call money is now merely bits of light and information, essentially, we’re going to have to recognize what Naravana Kocherlakota stated in her 1996 report for the Federal Reserve Bank: “Money is Memory”. “Since the dawn of its use, money has been used to account for things, a way to remember who did what, who contributed what, who used what, and who used whom.” Yet especially throughout the current worldview of capitalism, though money does still serve as memory, we have largely forgotten what we most dearly need to remember.

If we continue to use money as a forced mechanism that we are indebted and beholden to, a debt that can never be repaid, it will continue to manufacture as much poverty as it will wealth, perhaps more. Yet if we open up to it as a method for accounting for our gifts, there is a good chance that it can still be a tool for our betterment.

As Kocherlakota went on, “if we account for the fact that money itself is useless, monetary allocations are merely large interlocking networks of gifts.” Should we wish to get a grip on our obsession with money and move into a more expansive understanding of abundance, it is vital that we start recognizing the greater gifts available to us, instead of continuing to embrace the illusion of scarcity and the control mechanisms it inspires. By adhering to the myopic understanding that the most important thing in life is capital, and driving the expansion of commoditization at all costs, we have come to view even human suffering as good for the economy, thereby severely limiting the greater gifts that life has to offer.

“Some degree of rejection of the current system must occur in order to increase the pressure to change the whole structure,” writes Peter Joseph in The New Human Rights Movement. “One method is to work to reduce economic involvement in money and trade as much as possible. The use of collectives, shared library systems, time banks, mutual credit systems, and other mechanisms can help not only reduce economic growth but also help those currently suffering. This is a difficult line to walk, however, as the systemic chain reaction of a loss of economic growth is also a loss of work and purchasing power for some… The new measures of success must be based upon finding balance with nature and one another, not gaming, exploitation, and advantage seeking. Only sustainable values can create a sustainable culture.”

Since we have seen the toll industrial agriculture takes on the earth and realized the unsustainability of merely using food to make money, many are realizing the viability of backyard and community gardens, as well as newer technologies, like aquaponics, hydroponics, and grow boxes. For property caretakers who have the vision to see beyond the real estate model of fences and lawns, there is enormous opportunity in developing edible landscaping and common gardens. While we have adhered to the industrial agriculture model for eons because we’ve been told there won’t be enough food without it, the truth is that there isn’t enough food because of it.

Because we are more beholden to money, America alone throws away 40% of the food we grow because it is not profitable, while over 48 million Americans don’t have enough food to eat. Because we have been beholden to money, America has an estimated 18 million empty houses and 3.5 million homeless people. And because we have been beholden to money, much of our penal system has evolved as an industry in itself, making the fact that America now houses 22% of the world’s prison population (even though it is comprised of only 4.4% of the total world population) an economic boon.

As we move forward toward what Charles Eisenstein calls “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible”, let’s realize that establishing a higher quality of life isn’t about keeping track of numbers that will eventually prove themselves to be irrelevant, but by ensuring that the people that share our time and space with us have their true needs met.

“Money is not wealth,” says David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule The World. “Money is a number we agree to exchange for things with real value. The very vocabulary of finance and economics is a world of doublespeak that obscures such essential distinctions and in part explains why economists have such a hard time understanding either money or the economy.”

The challenge with money is that most people view it as a currency through which the economy can flow, while the small minority, who dictate how money is to be used and control the majority of it, see it as a commodity. So while most spend their time working to earn and spend it, the small few are more concerned with hoarding it for themselves while doing very little, if any, actual work. Unfortunately, our system is designed to honor, esteem, and reward the non-virtues of greed and selfishness, regardless of their impact on others.

As Mark Boyle describes it in The Moneyless Manifesto, “Money – that soulless, empty, arbitrary concept, subject to the fickle whims of markets and inflation, in itself good for neither feeding us, sheltering us, nor loving us – has become more meaningful, more valued and more sacred in our lives than trees – providers of oxygen, water, food, shade, shelter and soil structure. We are in Alice’s wonderland, where nothing is what it seems, and nothing is as it should be. We are completely delusional about what we need in order to live nourished, meaningful lives, and our delusion is destroying not only our ability to do that, but the ability of every other species on the planet to do so too. As the Cree Indian proverb goes, it seems that ‘only when the last tree has died, the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught, will we realize we cannot eat money’.”

Because money isn’t an ideal quantifier of true value, many have found it extremely disempowering as they have strived to pursue their purpose. As Charles Eisenstein writes, “the money system is not aligned with the Story of Interbeing, enforcing instead competition, scarcity, alienation from Nature, dissolution of community, and the endless, nonreciprocal exploitation of the planet. If your life’s work does not contribute to the conversion of Nature into products and relationships into services, you may often find that there isn’t much money to be made doing it. There are exceptions—glitches in the system, as well as the halting attempts by benevolent people and organizations to use some of their money in the spirit of the gift—but by and large, money as it is today is not aligned with the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”

Regardless of how many recessions our obsession with finance may produce, the greater danger is the depression of our true economy. Beyond our history of forced subservience, our current depression is as well derived from the dismal reality that we are largely reliant on men we don’t trust to make decisions on our behalf. It is as if we are collectively involved in an abusive relationship, but fear leaving the relationship because we don’t think anyone else will care for us, and we’ve been conditioned to believe that no one will.

“Money has an even darker side,” explains Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. “For although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities, or sacred values, but in money itself and in the impersonal systems that back it. We do not trust the stranger, or the next-door neighbour – we trust the coin they hold. If they run out of coins, we run out of trust. As money brings down the dams of community, religion, and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace.”

The fortunate reality is that we have only practiced this addictive lifestyle for 5% of our species’ known existence. It is not any less feasible for us to release our grasp from this crutch and walk a new path than it is for a fifty-year-old human to spend a year battling addiction or illness and find recovery and a renewed appreciation for life. The application for this program of recovery involves a restored relationship with the spirit we all share beyond our folklore, mythologies, and traditions, the realization of our roles as part of Nature instead of her conquerors, a greater appreciation for the knowledge at our disposal and our ability to innovate beyond it, and forgiveness for whatever past behaviors and decisions have contributed, and continue to contribute, to our separation from the life of abundance that is our birthright.

After all, the Latin translation of homo sapiens is “wise person”. Perhaps it is time that we wisen up and live up to our namesake. There is an old Chinese proverb that translates to “A wise man knows that he knows nothing,” which is reiterated in the West through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians when he wrote, “And if any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.”

Our current economic system of capitalism, the undercurrent of the American Dream, certainly has done much in helping us to develop new technologies, industries, arts, and methods for helping our fellow man. Yet we must also consider that the phonograph, eight-track, cassette, and compact disc all did much to develop the opportunities for listening to music. Nevertheless, technology has now advanced to a point where we can listen to the music of our choice anywhere and at any time with only a smartphone. Isn’t it possible that our monetary technology can be upgraded as well?

Given the instability of the financial system, and the growing amount of mistrust that people have in it as the money we’ve created becomes increasingly absorbed into the accounts of a very few, it is not difficult to imagine the whole house of cards falling in upon itself. The Federal Reserve Bank has already enabled roughly fourteen crashes since the Great Depression, and thanks to Nixon’s lesser known act of treachery, the US Dollar, the linchpin of the world financial system, has no intrinsic value of its own. Given that the average American must now work harder and longer than ever before in order to accumulate this worthless legal tender, and is still often unable to meet the most basic of needs, would it really be such a terrible occurrence for the monetary system to be replaced by something a little more supportive of the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness we long for?

Popular culture is already offering visions of a life less complex. Lost gave us six seasons of people living beyond the monetary economy and establishing a collaborative, although often confusing, way of living together. The TV series Revolution has shown us a world without power and the attempted reestablishment of a societal infrastructure. And The Walking Dead has given us a vision of complete societal breakdown as humanity is absorbed into the cannibalism required in order to continue the monetary system as we know it.

Granted, none of these examples paints a necessarily rosy picture of a future without money, yet they do each offer resolute examples of how people can come together in times of adversity and work with one another collaboratively in order to establish a greater sense of economic balance and stability beyond the established system. For the time being, we do not have to create such means of survival under the duress of catastrophe, yet at the rate at which we are depleting the planet’s natural resources to feed our habit of unyielding consumption, many fear that time is not far off. Should we find the strength to release the fears and bigotry that keep us bound to this unquestionably flawed system and embrace a lifestyle of stronger communities, greater resilience, more enjoyable innovations, and more widely spread happiness, we can continue our societal evolution, or we could just wait to allow absolute necessity to be the mother of invention.

Currently, money serves as a proxy for trust. America has so promoted the idea of independence, a large portion of the population does not realize the interconnectedness of humanity. Having been subjected to so many years of isolation through watching television and the horror stories that have been spoon-fed throughout the media landscape, our trust in our fellow man is seemingly nearly depleted. The loss of money as a proxy for the trust we once had may just push people into panic and savagery if we can’t find a way to make our civilization civil enough.

As Yuval Noah Harari states in Sapiens, “For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.”

Of this first 200,000 years of known human existence, these 10,000 years that we consider history are not really human history, but largely the history of money and the words we use to tell stories about it. We had a good 190,000 years that are unaccounted for in which we didn’t use money at all. Yet just because we’ve used it kinda poorly in this last little while, doesn’t mean that we can’t learn to use it in a better manner until we eventually may not need to use it at all.

Given that our society came to use a strategy like slavery, but corrected the practice and stopped, it should give us hope that we can stop using other practices that do not work in favor of the whole of us as well. Or at least practices that aren’t as devastating to the human spirit.

Our standard operating procedures have produced a level of gluttony, injustice, obesity, violence, slothfulness, and selfishness never before seen in the world on such a grand scale. It is apparent that our chasing after money is not giving us the quality of life that we truly want for ourselves, our children, or for future generations. Perhaps it’s time we wisely open up to a more substantial experience of life through a new understanding of our spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional wealth.

Unfortunately, the American economic system is, as Gore Vidal, described it, “free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich.”

Economics was defined by Lionel Robbins as “the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses,” but what often gets forgotten in traditional economics, especially with capitalism and its obsession with capital, is what Edgar Cahn, the inventor of time dollars, calls the “Core Economy.” This is comprised of the families, neighborhoods and communities that love and care for one another, come to each other’s rescue, enact democracy and promote social justice. They are important ends, means, and alternatives that aren’t given enough consideration in our current economic discussion.

“All of our economic planning omits at least a third of the map,” says Edgar Cahn. “It omits an economy that I think you need to be aware of. It’s called home, family, neighborhood, community, civil society. It probably doesn’t do anything important from the point of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). It just raises children, makes neighborhoods safe and vibrant, raises strong families, takes care of the elderly, gets involved in things like elections, tries to make democracy work, tries to hold officials accountable, fights for social justice, tries to keep the planet sustainable, but nothing of economic importance, you understand.”

Money is a tool we have used to develop a civil-ization whereby there is more than enough shelter for every human being on the planet and the means to grow food, get water, and connect in ways that were heretofore unimaginable. Yet we still find ourselves with a large percentage of the population unable to afford housing, food, water, or connection. Money is still a fine tool, and it will still have many applications as we maneuver our way out of the vice in which we have found ourselves.

However, the sooner we realize the value of our Core Economy, the value of one another, when we see clearly the abundance of life that manifests outside of the parameters of fiduciary profit and corporate control, the sooner we will realize how ridiculous the game of money really is, and how much we have actually lost by playing with it in so many inappropriate instances. But even more importantly, if we can refocus the intention of our lives from this game of money to the merits that truly matter – our families, our communities, our creativity, our environment, and our collective happiness – we will find that our investments into these accounts pay off much more richly than folds of bacteria-ridden paper ever could.

As we move out of the industrial mentality and realize ourselves as more than merely cogs in the financial wealth machine, people around the world are starting to realize the true value of the roles they play in their everyday lives, beyond the things they do to earn money. For in America, and in many places around the world, we have been so accustomed to doing things for money that we often find little reason to do things if the exchange of those manufactured denominations are not the result of our actions.

“Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity,” wrote psychologist Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving, “he experiences his life energy as an investment with which he should make the highest profit, considering his position and the situation on the personality market. He is alienated from himself, from his fellow men and from Nature. His main aim is profitable exchange of his skills, knowledge, and of himself, his ‘personality package’ with others who are equally intent on a fair and profitable exchange. Life has no goal except the one to move, no principle except the one of fair exchange, no satisfaction except the one to consume.”

Finding ourselves in this interminable rat-race in order to satiate our induced hungers, we are exhausting our most precious resources for quick fixes and not recognizing the true value of what we so often take for granted. This places us in an awkward state where upward mobility is mired in a growing assortment of garbage while an opportunistic few absorb the wealth from our activity. Unfortunately, most of us are too busy earning money just to get by to really even know what true wealth is.

“For millions of people, ‘wealth’ amounts to little more than a few weeks’ wages in a checking account or low-interest savings account, a car, and a few pieces of furniture,” says Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. “The inescapable reality is this: wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that some people imagine that it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities.”

In our current state of operations, a lot of what we do is motivated by the need to get money, but much of what we truly want to do is for the sake of purpose, and for doing what we can to help those we love. Consider most of the content on the Internet. Now that the Information Revolution has given us the technologies we so often take for granted, the majority of content on the Internet was created not for money, but for free, out of the sheer passion of doing it. What we do out of passion has value that should not be ignored.

As Laurence Boldt says in Zen and the Art of Making a Living, “Those who take up their work as a creative pursuit, those who are really working from ‘the inside out’ in a spirit of service, need a wider range of alternatives than the conventional nine-to-five job format alone.”

In the old paradigm, which guided the American experiment through its apex in the fifties, the nine-to-five job was something to be desired, offering status, stability, and security. However, as the dream of industrialism has begun to fade, and the populous has opened up to greater possibilities in the realm of entrepreneurship, that status, stability, and security are no longer offered from the dying breeds of nine-to-five jobs, but seem to be floating in the ether somewhere between the past and future. If we are to guide this transformation toward a Renaissance rather than a Dark Age, to help the populace transcend the limitations created through the faltering Age of Separation, we must open up channels for people to embrace the coming Age of Reunion.

“The Age of Reunion,” as Charles Eisenstein calls it in The Ascent of Humanity, “is rather a new human estate, a return to the harmony and wholeness of the hunter-gatherer but at a higher level of organization and a higher level of consciousness. It does not reverse but rather integrates the entire course of separation, which we may begin to see as an adventure of self-discovery instead of a terrible blunder.”

The old paradigm of separation continues to reveal its fallibility, and wisdom allows us to see how much damage it has caused. With this realization, we are given the auspicious occasion to offer forgiveness to the entirety of humanity for clamoring its way through our societal development, and realize new inroads for attaining the quality of life we are actually longing for. However, to seize this potential, we must recognize that throughout our journey toward civilization, Life has provided in a myriad of ways and will continue to do so. And if we bring our inherent creative potential to the task of weaving together these disparate pieces of abundance, which have been largely torn asunder by the Age of Separation from which we are waking, we truly can usher in the renaissance we seek as a catalyst for the Age of Reunion, and find an entirely new understanding of economic viability.

However, to do so, we are going to have to rethink the way that we view our culture.

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