The Ascent of Humanity
Chapter 4: Money and Property
The Realm of Me and Mine
The idea of property occurs naturally to the discrete and separate self. Just as Cartesian objectivity divides the world into self and other, property divides it into mine and yours. Just as Galilean materialism insists that only the measurable is real, so economics denominates all value in money units.
The urge to own arises as a natural response to an alienating ideology that severs felt connections and leaves us “alone in the universe.” Shorn of connectedness and identity with the matrix of all being, the tiny, isolated self that remains has a voracious need to claim as much as possible of that lost beingness for its own. If all the world, all of life and earth, is no longer me, I can at least compensate by making it mine.
It has been said of infants, “Their wants are their needs.” The same is actually true of adults too, except that the want has been so distorted that its object can no longer satisfy the need, but may even intensify it. Such is the case with greed. Greed is not some unfortunate appendage to human nature to be controlled or conquered. It arises from a hunger for identity—for the richness of relationship from which identity is built. Ironically, following the pattern of any addiction, indulging in greed only exacerbates the underlying need, because enclosing more of the world into the domain of mine separates us all the more from the connected interbeingness for which we hunger.
Perhaps this realization can temper our judgmentality toward the greedy. The next time you witness greed, see a hungry person instead. The next time you feel greedy yourself, take a moment to touch the wantingness, the existential incompletion, underneath that greed. The same goes for selfishness generally, that constricted feeling of wanting to manage and control the world outside the self so as to turn it toward the self’s benefit. Selfishness in all its forms seeks the benefit and inflation of a self rendered artificially small, a self which is in fact an ideological construct.
As that word mine indicates, ownership implies an attachment of things to self. The more we own, the more we are. The constellation of me and mine grows. But no matter how large the discrete and separate self grows, it is still far smaller than the self of the hunter-gatherer. The pre-separation mind is able to affirm, all at once and without contradiction, “I am this body,” “I am this tribe,” “I am the jungle,” “I am the world.” No matter how much of the jungle we control, we are smaller than the one who knows, “I am the jungle.” No matter how dominant we are socially, we are far less than one who knows, “I am my tribe.” And far less secure, too, because all of these appendages to our tiny separate selves may be easily sundered from us. We are therefore perpetually and irremediably insecure. We go to great lengths to protect all these accessories of identity, our possessions and money and reputations, and when our house is burglarized, our wallet stolen, or our reputation besmirched, we feel as if our very selves have been violated.
Not only does our acquisitiveness arise out of separation, it reinforces it as well. The notion that a forest, a gene, an idea, an image, a song is a separate thing that admits ownership is quite new. Who are we to own a piece of the world, to separate out a part of the sacred universe and make it mine? Such hubris, once unknown in the world, has had the unfortunate effect of separating out ourselves as well from the matrix of reality, cutting us off (in experience if not in fact) from each other, from nature, and from spirit. By objectifying the world and everything in it, by making an other of the world, we necessarily objectify ourselves as well in relation to that other. The self becomes a lonely and isolated ego, connected to the world pragmatically but not in essence, afraid of death and thus closed to life. Such a self, cut off from its true nature and separated from the factitious environment created by its own self-definition, will always be insecure and will always try to exert more and more control over this environment.
The extent to which we identify ourselves with our bodies, possessions, and the domain of our control is also the extent to which we are afraid of death. I am speaking here not of the biological terror that drives any animal to struggle with a predator, but to an ambient dread that drives us to pretense and hiding. More than any other crisis, death is the intruder whose mere approach crumbles the fortress of the separate self. A personal brush with death, or even the passing of a loved one, connects us to a reality beyond the constructs of me and mine. Death opens our hearts. Death reminds us, with a clarity that trumps all logic, that only love is real. And what is love, but a melting of the boundaries between self and other? As many poets have understood, love too is a kind of death.
To a person identified with tribe, forest, and planet, the death of the body and all it controls is far less frightening. Another way to describe such a person is that he or she is in love with the world. Love is antidote to fear of death, because it expands one’s boundaries beyond what can be lost. Conversely, fear of death blocks love by shutting us in and making us small. And fear of death is built into our ideology—the self-definition implicit in objectivist science.
Money and property simply enforce this self-definition. They are concrete manifestations of the separate self, the self that is afraid of death and closed to love. Money, in its present form, is anti-love. But it is not the root of all evil, just another expression of separation, another piece of the puzzle. Other systems of money are possible that have the opposite effect of our present currency, structurally discouraging the accumulation of me and mine. Curious? Keep reading… I’ll get to them in Chapter Seven.
Something like a money system cannot be changed in isolation. Not only does it correspond to our sense of self and our identification with ego; it also flows from the meta-historical process of separation I have described thus far.
Incipient already in fire and stone, label and number, the objectification of the world crystallized into a new phase with the advent of agriculture: domestication of plants and animals, the turning of nature to human purposes. Then the Machine propelled separation to yet a new level: its promise of transcending natural limitations set us above and apart from nature, while machine society’s mass scale and division of labor unraveled human communities. Finally, the methods and logic of the machine achieved their apotheosis in science, which elevated the long-emerging ideology of the discrete and separate self to the status of sanctified truth.
The stage was now set for this ideology to play itself out in the material and social realm. When the world becomes a collection of objects (as in symbolic culture), when these objects are subordinated to human use (as in domestication, agriculture), then they inevitably become property, things that may be bought and sold, defined by their utility for human ends. When science and machine technology then totalize the subjugation of nature, the conversion of the world to money and property tends toward totality as well. The propertization and monetization of life discussed in this chapter grows inevitably from the separation that began with agriculture or before, and that reached its conceptual fulfillment with the Newtonian World-machine.
Money is the instrument—not the cause, the instrument—by which our separation from nature, spirit, love, beauty, justice, peace, and community approaches its maximum.
Immersed in the logic of money, we actually see this separation as a good thing. If that seems an outrageous statement, consider what is meant by “financial independence” and the closely related goal of financial security. Financial security means having enough money not to be dependent on good luck or good will. Money promises to insulate us from the whims of nature and the vicissitudes of fate, from the physical and social environment. From this perspective, the quest for financial security is but a projection of the Technological Program into personal life. Insulation from the whims of the environment (which is to master it, to bring it under control) is the age-old quest of technology. And its fulfillment (perfect control over nature) also means perfect security, the elimination of risk.
The campaign to make oneself fully free of the whims of fate, of the vicissitudes of nature, and of reliance on one’s community can never actually succeed (just as the Technological Program can never succeed in its campaign to fully control nature), but the semblance of success may persist for some time: the all-American upper-middle class suburbanite with a good job (plus the resumé to get another good job if something should happen), good health (plus plenty of insurance should something happen), diversified investments (just in case), and the rest. Such a person is, in a very real sense, not dependent on anybody—not on any specific person, that is. Of course he is dependent on the farmer who grows his food, but not on any particular farmer, not on any individual person. The goodwill of any individual person is unnecessary because he can always “pay someone else to do it.” He thus lives in a world without obligation. He is beholden to no one.
Not only is perfect independence (financial or otherwise) forever beyond our grasp, it is an illusion cloaking an even greater dependency. It is not the dependency that is dangerous though—it is the illusion. It is the illusion that separates us from, and thus allows us to destroy, so much of what we actually depend on. What does it take to pierce that illusion? Usually it takes a crisis: an encounter with death as described above, or another of life’s catastrophes such as divorce, bankruptcy, illness, humiliation, or imprisonment. We stave these off as long as possible with our programs of management and control, but eventually one or another finds its way into even the most secure fortress of self. These events transform us. We let go as we discover that the only lasting, dependable security comes from controlling less not more, opening up to life, loosening the rigid boundaries of self, letting other people in, and become tied—that is more dependent, not less—to a community of people and the community of nature.
As above, so below. Each of these personal crises has a collective counterpart that humanity is facing today. In our depletion of natural resources—soil, water, energy—we face bankruptcy; in the breakdown of our communities and the rending of the social fabric we face divorce; in the mounting ecological crisis and the threat of nuclear war, we face death. The conventional response is to try to hold everything together, to maintain the illusion of independence by extending it still further. It is to remedy the failure of control by applying even more control.
The importance we place on independence from the social and material world has deep roots in our basic mythology. In the fundamentally indifferent universe of Newton or the fundamentally competitive world of Darwin, independence from the rest of the world is surely a good thing. By owning more and more of the world we make it safe, make it ours. We gain mastery over the random forces buffeting us, and we maximize the resources available for our own survival benefit.
This chapter explores the ways and means by which money has been the instrument of the destruction of love, truth, beauty, spirit, nature, and community. At the conceptual level, reductionistic science foretold their disappearance several centuries ago, for all exemplify the eliminated Galilean secondary qualities that “when you take it apart are not there.” Money, the unit of account for the reduction of life, has brought reductionism into the daily realm. This chapter tells the story of our impoverishment. My goal is not to make you bitter, however palpable my indignation. My goal, rather, is to raise your expectations and inspire within you a sense of lofty possibilities. By identifying what has been lost, and how, we may forge a path to its recovery. I am speaking to your sense of disenfranchisement—whether you are rich or poor, powerful or oppressed. Indeed, the disenfranchisement I speak of may be even more extreme in society’s winners, for two reasons. One is that the impoverishing dynamics of money are often more advanced in their lives; the other is that the vacuity of society’s rewards is all the more evident for having acquired them. No longer can the pursuit of them obscure the hunger for the lost wealth of connection and being.
I am speaking, in other words, to your sense that a more beautiful world is possible. We need not wallow in grief over the beautiful things that have passed, nor wallow in resentment toward the forces that have taken them from us. It is important, however, to acknowledge and be sad for what is lost, so that we may complete the past and create the future in wholeness. Drawing on the Sanskrit root sat, to be sad means to be full. Sad, satisfied, sated. Complete. Ready to live and create from a full experience of reality.
This chapter will put into a vast context much of what troubles us about the world today. Here are some of the questions that for ten years or more have inspired the explorations that resulted in this book. I invite you to hold them in your mind as you read this chapter.
Why are my adult friendships so superficial?
Why are people so busy?
Why are children so highly scheduled?
Why do I see so many fewer children playing outdoors as compared to my childhood?
Why do Americans rarely sing in public?
What happened to all the great storytellers?
What happened to the extended family?
Why have houses and yards gotten so huge?
Why are prices so distorted that it is cheaper to buy a new appliance than to repair an old one?
Why do corporations composed of nice people do awful things?
Why don’t people know their neighbors very well anymore?
Why are there “No Trespassing” signs everywhere?
Why are lawsuits and liability concerns so prevalent these days?
Why has society become so idealistic?
Why are we seemingly helpless to slow down the destruction of the ecosystem?
Why is work unpleasant?
Does it have to be frustrating and lonely to be a parent taking care of young children?
Why do people voice the desire to create community, but then show themselves by their actions to be uninterested?
Why are television and video games so addictive?
What bothers me so much about copyrights, trademarks, and intellectual property?
Why can’t people do things for themselves anymore?