As the economic meltdown proceeds to its next phase, we begin to see the unreality of much that we thought real. The verities of two generations become uncertain, and despite a lingering hope that a return to normalcy is just around the corner — in “the third quarter of 2009” or “by the middle of 2010” — the realization is dawning that normal isn’t coming back.
When faced with an abrupt shift in personal reality, whether the death of a loved one, or the Gestapo coming into town, human beings usually react first with denial. My first response when tragedy hits is usually, “I can’t believe this is happening!” I was not surprised, then, that our nation’s political and corporate leaders spent a long time denying that a crisis was underway. Consider some quotes from 2007: “The country’s economic fundamentals are sound,” said George W. Bush. “I don’t see subprime mortgage market troubles imposing a serious problem. I think it’s going to be largely contained,” said Treasury Secretary Paulson. “A recession is unlikely.” “We are experiencing a correction in the housing sector.” “America is not in recession.” “It is likely that housing prices won’t recover until early 2009.”
Of course, many of these pronouncements were insincere, efforts at perception management. The authorities hoped that by controlling the public perception of reality, they could control reality itself; that by the manipulation of symbols they could manipulate the reality they represent. This, in essence, is what anthropologists call “magico-religious thinking.” It is not without reason that our financial elites have been called a priesthood. Donning ceremonial garb, speaking an arcane language, wielding mysterious inscriptions, they can with a mere word, or a mere stroke of a pen, cause fortunes and nations to rise and fall.
You see, magico-religious thinking normally works. Whether it is a shamanic rite, the signing of an appropriations bill, or the posting of an account balance, when a ritual is embedded in a story that people believe, they act accordingly, playing out the roles the story assigns to them, and responding to the reality the story establishes. In former times, when a shamanic rite was seen to have failed, everyone knew this was a momentous event, signaling the End of the World, a shift in what was real and what was not, the end of the old Story of the People and the beginning, perhaps, of a new one. What, from this perspective, is the significance of the accelerating failure of the rites of finance?
We like to scoff at primitive cave-dwellers who imagined that their representations of animals on cave walls could magically affect the hunt. Yet today we produce our own talismans, our own systems of magic symbology, and indeed affect physical reality through them. A few numbers change here and there, and thousands of workers erect a skyscraper. Some other numbers change, and a venerable business shuts its doors. The foreign debt of a Third-World country, again mere numbers in a computer, consigns its people to endless enslavement producing commodity goods that are shipped abroad. College students, ridden with anxiety, deny their dreams and hurry into the workforce to pay off their student loans, their very will subject to a piece of paper with magical symbols (“Account Statement”) sent to them once every moon, like some magical chit in a voodoo cult. These slips of paper that we call money, these electronic blips, bear a potent magic indeed!
How does magic work? Rituals and talismans affirm and perpetuate the consensus stories we all participate in, stories which form our reality, coordinate our labor, and organize our lives. Only in exceptional times do they stop working: the times of a breakdown in the story of the people. We are entering such times today. That is why none of the economic measures enacted so far to contain the crisis have worked, and why the current stimulus package won’t work either. None go deep enough. The only reform that can possibly be effective will be one that embodies, affirms, and perpetuates a new story of the people (if we can agree on one). To see what that might be, let us dig down through the layers of failing realities and their relationship to money.
When the government’s first response to the crisis — denial — proved futile, the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department tried another sort of perception management. Deploying their arsenal of mystical incantations, they signaled that the government would not allow major financial institutions such as Fannie Mae to fail. They hoped that their assurances would be enough to maintain confidence in the assets that depended on these firms’ continued solvency and prosperity. It would have worked if the story these symbolic measures invoked was not already broken. But it was. Specifically, what was broken was the story assigning value to mortgage-backed securities and other derivatives based on unrepayable loans. Unlike camels or bushels of grain, but like all modern currencies, these have value only because people believe they have value. Moreover, this is not an isolated belief, but is inextricably linked with millions of other beliefs, conventions, habits, agreements, and rituals.
The next step was to begin injecting massive amounts of cash into failing financial institutions, either in exchange for equity (effectively nationalizing them, as in the case of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG), or in exchange for essentially nothing whatsoever, as in the TARP program. In the latter, the Treasury Department (using your tax dollars) guaranteed or bought banks’ toxic assets in hopes of improving their balance sheets so that they would start lending again, thus keeping the credit bubble expanding. It didn’t work. The banks just kept the money (except what they paid to their own executives as bonuses) as a hedge against their exposure to untold quantities of additional bad assets, or they used it to acquire smaller, healthier banks. They weren’t about to lend more to consumers who were already maxed out, nor to over-leveraged businesses in the teeth of a recession. Property values continued to fall, credit default rates continued to rise, and the whole edifice of derivative assets built upon them continued to crumble. Consumption and business activity plummeted, unemployment skyrocketed, and people in Europe began rioting in the streets. And why? Just because some numbers changed in some computers. It is truly amazing. It only makes sense when you see these numbers as talismans embodying agreements. A supplier digs minerals out of the ground and sends them to a factory, in exchange for what? For a few slips of paper, or more likely, in exchange for some bits moving around in a computer, which can only happen with the permission of a bank (that “provides credit”).
Before we become too alarmed about the impending giveaway of $8 trillion dollars on top of the $2 trillion we have already given to the wealthy, let us touch back again upon the reality of money. What actually happens when this money is given away? Almost nothing happens. What happens is that bits change in computers, and the few people who understand the interpretations of those bits declare that money has been transferred. Those bits are the symbolic representation of an agreement about a story. This story includes who is rich and who is poor, who owns and who owes. It is said that our children and grandchildren will be paying these bailout and stimulus debts, but they could also simply be declared into non-existence. They are only as real as the story we agree on that contains them. Our grandchildren will pay them only if the story, the system of meanings, that defines those debts still exists. But I think more and more people sense that the federal debt, the U.S. foreign debt, and a lot of our private mortgage and credit card debts will never be repaid.
We think that those Wall Street tycoons absconded with billions, but what are these billions? They too are numbers in computers, and could theoretically be erased by fiat. The same with the money we owe China. It could be gone with a simple declaration. We can thus understand the massive giveaways of money in the TARP, TALF, and PPIF programs as yet another exercise in perception management, though this time it is an unconscious exercise. These giveaways are ritual acts that attempt to perpetuate a story, a matrix of agreements, and the human activities that surround it. They are an attempt to uphold the magical power of the voodoo chits that keep the college grad on a career path and the middle-aged man enslaved to his mortgage; that give the power to a few to move literal mountains, while keeping the many in chains.
Speaking of China, I find it instructive to look at the physical reality underlying the trade deficit. Basically what is happening is that China is shipping us vast quantities of stuff — clothes, toys, electronics, nearly everything in Wal-Mart — and in return we rearrange some bits in some computers. Meanwhile, Chinese laborers work just as hard as we do, yet their day’s wages buy much less. In the old days of explicit empires, China would have been called a “vassal state” and the stuff it sends us would have been called “tribute.” Yet China too will do everything it can to sustain the present Story of Money, for essentially the same reason we do: its elites benefit from it. It is just as in Ancient Rome. The elites of the imperial capital and the provinces prosper at the expense of the misery of the people, which increases over time. To keep it in check, in the capital at least, the masses are kept docile and stupid with bread and circuses: cheap food, cheap thrills, celebrity news, and the Superbowl.
Whether we declare it to end, or whether it ends of its own accord, the story of money will bring down a lot with it. That is why the United States won’t simply default on its debt. If it did, then the story under which the Middle East ships us its oil, Japan its electronics, India its textiles, and China its plastic would come to an end. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, that story cannot be saved forever. The reasons are complex, so I’ll just point you in the right direction if you want to research it yourself. Essentially, at some point China (and other creditor nations) will have to appreciate its currency, replace exports with domestic demand, and raise interest rates in order to combat disastrous inflation caused by its pumping yuan into its economy in exchange for all the dollars flowing in from its exporters. The result will be a run on the dollar, a global calamity that will put an end to money as we have known it. When that happens, our government will have only two choices: extreme austerity measures such as those we have long perpetrated on other countries through the IMF, or a bout of currency-destroying hyperinflation. The latter is probably inevitable; austerity would only stave it off temporarily. That would be the end of our current story of money, for it would render all financial wealth (and debt) worthless.
When money evaporates as it is doing in the current cycle of debt deflation, little changes right away in the physical world. Stacks of currency do not go up in flames (but even if they did, that is not too momentous a physical event). Factories do not blow up, engines do not grind to a halt, oil wells do not dry up, people’s economic skills do not disappear. All of the materials and skills that are exchanged in human economy, upon which we rely for food, shelter, transportation, entertainment, and so on, still exist as before. What has disappeared is our capacity to coordinate our activities and focus our common efforts. We can still envision a new airport, but we can no longer build it. The magic talisman by which the pronouncement, “An airport shall be built here” crystallizes into material reality has lost its power. Human hands, minds, and machinery retain all their capacities, yet we can no longer do what we once could do. The only thing that has changed is our perceptions.
Clearly, the TARP program and other bailouts are also an exercise in perception management, but on a deeper, less conscious level. Because what is money, anyway? Money is merely a social agreement, a story that assigns meaning and roles. The classical definition of money — a medium of exchange, a store of value, a unit of account — describe what money does, but not what it is. Physically, it is now next to nothing: slips of paper, bits in computers. Socially, it is next to everything: the primary agent for the coordination of human activity and the focusing of collective human intention.
The government’s deployment of trillions of dollars in money is thus little different from its earlier deployment of empty words. Both are nothing but the manipulation of various types of symbols, and both have failed for an identical reason as well: the story they are trying to perpetuate has run its course. The normalcy we took as normalcy was unsustainable. It is unsustainable on two levels. The first level is the debt pyramid, the exponential growth of money that inevitably outstrips the real economy.
The first level of unsustainable normalcy is based on what Michael Hudson calls “the miracle of compound interest.” Interest rates always tend to exceed the rate of real economic growth, which in the absence of defaults means that money grows faster than the volume of goods and services it buys, and that debt grows faster than gross domestic product (GDP). This has indeed been the case in the last 60 years in the United States, as private debt has risen from about 50% to about 350% of GDP. This cannot go on forever: to take an extreme example, a dollar invested at only 3% interest in the year 1 A.D. would be worth about $100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 today. Such sustained exponential growth is obviously impossible, so what happens? What must happen is that from time to time, some of this money must disappear through one of two ways: defaults, or inflation. Both of these results are ultimately good for debtors and bad for creditors; they transfer wealth to those who owe from those who own. Inflation means that the real value of loans shrinks over time: loans are repaid with cheaper dollars. Defaults mean that some creditors don’t get paid back at all, and have to take a loss.
U.S. fiscal policy for the last two generations has attempted to prevent both, but the narrow road between them is shrinking to nothing. If income from production of goods and services is insufficient to service debt, then the creditors begin to seize assets instead. This is what has happened both in the American economy and globally. Mortgages, for example, were originally a path toward owning your own home free and clear, starting with 20% equity. Today few ever dream of actually one day repaying their mortgage, but only of endlessly refinancing it, in effect renting the house from the bank. Globally, Third World countries find themselves in a similar situation, as they are forced to sell off national assets and gut social services under IMF austerity programs. Just as you might feel your entire productive labor is in the service of debt repayment, so is their entire economy directed toward producing commodity goods to repay foreign debt.
Eventually, debtors run out of seizable assets. The crash underway today should have actually happened many years ago, except that various phony and inflated assets were created to keep it going a little longer as the financial industry cannibalized itself, covering debt with more debt. The efforts to shore up this edifice cannot work, because it must keep growing — all those debts bear interest. Yet the authorities keep trying. When you hear the words “rescue the financial system,” translate it in your mind into “keep the debts on the books.” They are trying to find a way for you (and debtor nations too) to keep paying and for the debt to keep growing. A debt pyramid cannot grow forever, because eventually, after all the debtors’ assets are gone, and all their disposable income has been devoted to debt payments, creditors have no choice but to lend debtors the money to make their payments. Soon the outstanding balance is so high that they have to borrow money even to pay interest, which means that money is no longer flowing, and can no longer flow, from debtor to creditor. This is the final stage, usually short, though prolonged in our day by Wall Street’s financial “wizardry.” The loans and any derivatives built on them begin to lose their value, and debt deflation ensues.
I have just described the leadup to a deflationary depression. As it dawns on our leaders that we are not experiencing a mere “retrenchment,” “correction,” or “recession,” but are at the brink of a full-fledged deflationary depression, they are now beginning to act accordingly. When debts become unpayable, one can either reduce or eliminate the debt entirely, or one can try to increase the income of the debtor so that he can continue to make payments. The holders of wealth, whose interests determine government policy, would obviously prefer the latter, since a reduction in your debt is a reduction in their wealth. Consequently, the first response of the Obama administration to the deflationary crisis is economic stimulus. It will be more reluctant to adopt the second option, although we are beginning to hear calls for bank nationalizations, debt writedowns, and debt forgiveness now as well.
Both responses have as their ultimate goal the reigniting of economic growth, something nearly everyone agrees on. Here we enter into a second, deeper, story of money. I believe that even the most radical measures proposed today can have at best only a temporary effect: if they instigate economic growth it will be anemic and short-lived. That is because economic growth as we define it today, and money as we define it today, is part of a Story of the People that too is becoming obsolete. Reflecting this obsolescence, the true nature of the crisis will become apparent as each progressively more radical solution fails to restore the status quo. What we are facing today is not merely a Minskian bubble collapse, nor merely, even a deflationary unwinding of credit: it is nothing less than a Marxian “historical crisis of capital,” resurging now at a time when all the measures that have kept it at bay for two centuries have finally been exhausted.
The Marxian crisis is deeply related to the depletion of social, cultural, natural, and spiritual capital I describe in previous essays of this series. I will now describe this relationship, and then recast the Revolution in terms of a metamorphosis of the Story of the People.
First, a simplified description of a Marxian crisis. Consider an industry, say automobiles, comprising a number of competing firms. As competition forces profit margins lower and lower, each firm strives to cut costs and improve efficiency to avoid going out of business. They do this by reducing labor costs, adopting new technology, and increasing manufacturing capacity to take advantage of economies of scale. Several vicious circles begin. For one, increased capacity drives prices and profit margins per unit still lower, forcing each firm to expand capacity still more to compete. The policies that benefit each firm harm the industry as a whole: the response to industry-wide overcapacity is to build yet more capacity. Second, reducing labor costs through wage cuts, layoffs, and labor-saving technology reduces the purchasing power of workers, leading to weaker demand, lower profits, and the need to reduce labor costs still further. Weaker firms go out of business, capital is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, and unemployment rises, leading to social breakdown and revolution.
More generally, once the fulfillment of essential human needs is removed from its organic matrix of nature and community and taken over by machine processes, it becomes subject to economies of scale and technological improvements in efficiency, allowing these needs to be met with decreasing human effort. Marx, believing that profit comes from the expropriation of the added value of labor, concluded that profits will inevitably fall in any mature industry. In other words, marginal return on capital falls, price competition increases, profits drop and wages drop along with them. Needs can be met with less effort than ever before, yet because of the polarization of wealth, fewer and fewer of them actually are met. A minority is awash in cheap junk it barely needs, while the majority lacks for the basic necessities it once enjoyed, without exchange of money, a generation or two before.
What is this overproduction that is so central to the crisis of capital? It means production in excess of human needs. Therefore, one way to delay — perhaps forever — the Marxian crisis is to find new needs to meet. Technology is the agent of this process: for example, the telephone met a need for long-distance communication, opening a new industry — telecommunications — for rapid growth and high profits. The ideology I call the Technological Program says that there is no limit to technology’s ability to discover and meet new human needs. Economists cite this as the primary flaw in Marx’s reasoning: he didn’t account for our technological ability to innovate, to constantly create new high-profit industries to supplant mature ones. This is an ideology of endless growth, an economy of onward and upward. It scoffs at any naysayer who would question the infinite human capacity to create and innovate. It says there are no limits to growth: certainly not energy — we will invent new energy technologies and reduce demand through miniaturization and efficiency. Certainly not food supply — we will increase it through biotechnology while limiting human population growth and/or colonizing new planets and eventually engineering whole new ecosystems. Marx was only right if human inventiveness is finite.
According to this understanding, the restless anxiety and competition inherent in our money system is a good thing, impelling us to fulfill our destiny as lords and masters of the universe. As I have explained in earlier essays, money as we know it today has a built-in imperative to grow endlessly. Its growth carries the underlying real economy along with it, motivating the endless creation of new goods and services, and therefore (our ideology concludes) the endless creation of new and undreamed of forms of wealth. From within that ideology, the present economic crisis is seen as merely a financial crisis, caused by the expansion of credit outstripping the expansion of the real economy. At worst, after a wave of bankruptcies and defaults, the excess money will have cleared away, and growth can begin anew. The possibility and desirability of renewed growth is seldom questioned, except by committed environmentalists.
I would like to point out a fatal flaw in this logic, one that does not deny the infinite creativity of the human spirit. I find most limits-of-growth arguments dispiriting, as they imply an arrest of our unique human gifts, culture and technology. But there is a flaw in the critique of the inevitable Marxian crisis that does not depend on denying our gifts. You see, generally speaking, technology does not actually meet new needs; it merely changes the way in which existing needs are met.
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 14th 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, splintering 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 multi-player online fantasy role playing games. The need these meet is not anything new under the sun either. Pre-teens 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, and when society is obsessed with safety, and when children are so 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 Pokemon 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 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? As Henry Miller wrote in The World of Sex,
We devise astounding means of communication, but do we communicate with one another? We move our bodies to and fro at incredible speeds, but do we really leave the spot we started from? Mentally, morally, spiritually, we are fettered. What have we achieved in mowing down mountain ranges, harnessing the energy of mighty rivers, or moving whole populations about like chess pieces, if we ourselves remain the same restless, miserable, frustrated creatures we were before? To call such activity progress is utter delusion. We may succeed in altering the face of the earth until it is unrecognizable even to the Creator, but if we are unaffected wherein lies the meaning?
Despite what the GDP statistics say, what has happened is not the creation of new wealth at all. What has happened is the conversion of existing wealth into money. We have converted nature into commodities and relationships into services. From time to time throughout modern history, our ability to do this has reached a temporary impasse. Whenever that happens, a Marxian crisis of capital looms: falling returns on capital investment (falling profit margins), falling real wages, transfer of investment into financial speculation, rising indebtedness, and so on in a self-reinforcing circle of misery that can only end in systemic collapse. So far, the powers that be have successfully postponed the crisis each time. There are several ways to do so, but each is a temporary solution unless it can escalate indefinitely. One is colonization: to find distant people who still meet their own needs without money, stripmine their natural resources and social capital from them, and sell enough back to them to keep them alive. This strategy manifests as low wages and commodity exports. Another strategy is war, which consumes vast amounts of production and destroys productive capacity and infrastructure so that it may be rebuilt again. That was how WWII ended the Great Depression, and that is why so many companies lined up hungrily behind the United States armed forces hoping to get a piece of the reconstruction contracts for Iraq. However, war too is becoming obsolete as a solution to the crisis of capital. For one thing, productive capacity rises faster than the military industry’s ability to absorb it. Secondly, with the advent of nuclear weapons, total war is no longer an option.
To maintain the exponential growth of money, then either the volume of goods and services must be able to keep pace with it, or imperialism and war must be able to escalate indefinitely. All three have reached their limit. There is nowhere to turn.
The credit bubble that is blamed as the source of our current economic woes was not a cause of them at all, but only a symptom. When returns on capital investment began falling in the early 1970s, capital began a desperate search for other ways to maintain its expansion. When each bubble popped — commodities in the late 1970s, S&L real estate investments in the 1980s, the dotcom stocks in the 1990s, and real estate and financial derivatives in the 2000s — capital immediately moved on to the next bubble, maintaining an illusion of economic expansion. But the real economy was stagnating. There were not enough needs to meet the overcapacity of production, not enough social and natural capital left to convert into money.
Today, the impasse in our ability to convert nature into commodities and relationships into services is not temporary. There is little more we can convert. Technological progress and refinements to industrial methods will not help us take more fish from the seas — the fish are mostly gone. It will not help us increase the timber harvest — the forests are already stressed to capacity. It will not allow us to pump more oil — the reserves are drying up. We cannot expand the service sector — there are hardly any things we do for each other that we don’t pay for already. There is no more room for economic growth as we have known it; that is, no more room for the conversion of life and the world into money. Therefore, even if we follow the more radical policy prescriptions from the left, hoping by an annulment of debts and a redistribution of income to ignite renewed economic growth, we can only succeed in depleting what remains of our divine bequeathment of nature, culture, and community. At best, Obama’s policies as they stand today will allow a modest, shortlived expansion as the functions that were demonetized during the depression are remonetized. For example, because of the economic situation, some friends and I cover for each other’s child care needs, whereas in prosperous times we sent our kids to preschool. Our reciprocity represents an opportunity for economic growth: what we do for each other freely can be converted into monetized services. Generalized to the whole society, this is only an opportunity to grow back to where we were before, at which point the same crisis will emerge again. “Shrink in order to grow,” the essence of war and deflation, is only effective, and decreasingly so, as a holding action while new realms of unmonetized social and natural capital are accessed.
The story that is ending in our time, then, goes much deeper than the story of money. I call this story The Ascent of Humanity. It is a story of endless growth, and the money system we have today is an embodiment of that story, enabling and propelling the conversion of the natural realm into the human realm. It began millennia ago, when humans first tamed fire and made tools; it accelerated when we applied these tools to the domestication of animals and plants, and began to conquer the wild, to make the world ours. It reached its glorious zenith in the age of the Machine, when we created a wholly artificial world, harnessing all the forces of nature and imagining ourselves to be its lords and possessors. And now, that story is drawing to a close, as the inexorable realization dawns that the story is not true. Despite our pretenses, the world is not really ours; despite our illusions, we are not in control of it. As the unintended consequences of technology proliferate, as our our communities, our health, and the ecological basis of civilization deteriorate, as we explore new depths of misery, violence, and alienation, we enter the final stages of a story nearing completion: crisis, climax, and denouement. The rituals of our storytellers are to no avail. No story can persist beyond its ending.
It is time, therefore, to enter into a new story, and a new kind of money that embodies it. Just as life does not end with adolescence, neither does civilization’s evolution stop with the end of growth. We are in the midst of a transition parallel to an adolescent’s transition into adulthood. Physical growth ceases, and ones vital resources turn inward to foster growth in other realms. In childhood, it is right for a person to do what is necessary to grow, both physically and mentally. A good mother provides the resources for this growth, as our Mother Earth has done for us. We began in the womb of hunter-gatherer existence, in which we made no distinction between human and nature, but were enwombed within it. An infant does not have a strong self-other distinction, but takes time to form an identity and an ego, and to learn that the world is not an extension of the self. So it has been for humanity collectively. Whereas the hunter-gatherer had no concept of a separate “nature” distinct from “human”, the agriculturist, whose livelihood depending on the objectification and manipulation of nature, came to think of nature as a separate category. In the childhood of agricultural civilization, humanity developed a separate identity and grew large. We had our adolescent growth spurt with industry, and on the mental plane entered through Cartesian science the extreme of separation, the fully developed ego and hyperrationality of the teenager who, like humanity in the Age of Science, completes the stage of cognitive development known as “formal operations”, consisting of the manipulation of abstractions. But as the extreme of yang contains the birth of yin, so does the extreme of separation contain the seed of what comes next: reunion. Because in adolescence, you fall in love, and your world of perfect reason and perfect selfishness falls apart as the self expands to include the beloved within its bounds. Fully individuated from the Other, you can fall in love with it, and experience a reunion greater than the original union, for it contains within it the entire journey of separation. The environmental movement and numerous spiritual movements are all evidence that we are falling in love again with planet earth.
From this perspective, it is obvious that a money system that compels continued physical growth, that compels taking more and more from the earth, is obsolete. It is incompatible with love, with reunion. That is why no financial or economic reform can possibly work that does not include a new kind of money. The new money must embody a new story, one that treats nature not as a mother but as a lover. We will still have a need for money for a long time to come, because we need magical symbols to reify our Story of the People, to apply it to the physical world as a creative template. The essential character of money will not change: it will consist of magical talismans, whether physical or electronic, through which we assign roles, focus intention, and coordinate human activity.
I have described the currency of Reunion in previous essays in this series, as well as in The Ascent of Humanity. I want to emphasize that there is a personal, some might say spiritual, dimension to the metamorphosis of stories that we are entering. Today’s usury-money is part of a story of separation, in which “more for me is less for you.” That is the essence of interest: I will only “share” money with you if I end up with even more of it in return. On the systemic level as well, interest on money creates competition, anxiety, and the polarization of wealth. Meanwhile, the phrase “more for me is less for you” is also the motto of the ego, and a truism given the discrete and separate self of modern economics, biology, and philosophy. Only when our sense-of-self expands to include others, through the process called love, is that truism replaced by its opposite: “More for you is also more for me.” This is the essential truth embodied in the world’s authentic spiritual teachings, from Jesus’s Golden Rule, which has been misconstrued and should read: “As you do unto others, so also do you to unto yourself”, to the Buddhist doctrine of karma. However, to merely understand and agree with these teachings is not enough; many of us walk around with a divide between what we believe and what we live. An actual transformation in the way we experience being is necessary, and such a transformation usually comes about in much the same way as our collective transformation is happening now: through a collapse of the old story of self and world, and the birth of a new one. For the self, too, is ultimately a story, with a beginning and an end. Have you ever gone through an experience that leaves you, afterward, hardly knowing who you are?
The transition from the small, rational, ego self to a larger, more connected one normally happens in late adolescence and, according to Joseph Chilton Pearce, corresponds to developments in the mysterious “fourth brain”: the prefrontal cortex, whose functions are largely unknown. Ancient tribal cultures had various coming-of-age ceremonies and ordeals that purposely shattered the smaller identity through isolation, pain, fasting, psychedelic plants, or other means, and then rebuilt and reincorporated it into a larger, transpersonal identity. Though we intuitively seek them out in the form of drinking, drugs, fraternity and military hazing, and so on, modern men and women usually have only a partial experience of this process, leaving us in a kind of perpetual adolescence. It ends only when fate intervenes to tear our world apart. Then we can enter a wider self, in which giving comes just as naturally as taking. Naturally, you give according to your abilities and, linked with others of like spirit, you receive according to your needs.
Not coincidentally, I have just paraphrased a fundamental tenet of socialism: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” This is a good description of any gift network, whether a human body, an ecosystem, or a tribal gift culture. As previous essays describe, it is also a good description of an economy based on demurrage currency — money that, like all things of nature, decays with time. Demurrage currency contributes to a very different story of the people, of the self, and of the world than usury-money. It is cyclical rather than exponential, always returning to its source; it redefines wealth as a function of one’s generosity and not one’s accumulation; it is the manifestation of abundance not scarcity. It has the potential to recreate the gift dynamics of primitive societies on a global scale, bringing forth human gifts and directing them toward human needs. It nullifies the discounting of future cash flows that enables us to destroy the future for the sake of the present: under demurrage, the best business decision is the best ecological decision and the best social decision. It is thus a currency of sustainability. Because it is not compelled to grow over time, neither does it drag more and more of the world into the realm of commodities and services.
I remember as a teenager reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, whose black-and-white characters, hyperrationality, and moral absolutism appealed strongly to my adolescent mind. The book is a manifesto of the discrete and separate self, the mercenary ego, and it appeals to adolescent minds to this day. Alan Greenspan is a great fan, though perhaps he too is going through a transformation as the world falls apart. In any event, the book devoted its most vitriolic ridicule to the phrase “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” painting a picture of people outdoing each other in their self-portrayals of neediness so that they could be allotted a greater share of resources, while producers had no motivation to produce. This scenario, which was in certain respects played out in the communist block, echoes a primal fear of the scarcity-conditioned modern self — what if I give, and receive nothing in return? This desire of an assurance of return, a compensation for the risk of generosity, is the fundamental mindset of interest and, as I have described, an adolescent mindset to be superseded by a more expansive adult self that has matured into full membership in the community of being. But don’t just take my word for it. A little reflection reveals that no one can be fulfilled without the opportunity to give fully of her gifts. What makes a job unfulfilling? No matter how highly paid, if you lack the opportunity to fully apply your gifts toward a purpose that inspires you, any job eventually becomes soul-destroying. We are here to express our gifts; it is among our deepest desires and we cannot be fully alive otherwise.
The Marxian crisis of capital offers another perspective on the expression of human gifts. Most needs have been monetized, while the amount of labor needed to meet those monetized needs is falling. Therefore, in order for human gifts to receive their full expression, all this excess human creativity must therefore turn elsewhere, toward needs or purposes that are inimical to the money of Separation. For indeed, the regime of money has destroyed, and continues to destroy, much that is beautiful — indeed, every public good that cannot be made private. Here are a few examples: a starry night sky free of light pollution; a countryside free of road noise; a vibrant multi-cultural local urban economy; unpolluted lakes, rivers, and seas; the ecological basis of human civilization. Many of us have gifts that would contribute to all of these things, yet no one will pay us to give them. That’s because money as we know it ultimately rests on converting the public into the private. The new money will encourage the opposite, and the conflict between our ideals and practical financial reality will end. The era of taking will be over. The era of the Gift will begin.
Usury-money is the money of growth, and it was perfect for humanity’s growth stage on earth, and for the story of ascent, of dominance and mastery. The next stage is one of cocreative partnership with earth. The Story of the People for this new stage is coming together right now. Its weavers are the visionaries of fields like permaculture, holistic medicine, renewable energy, mycoremediation, local currencies, restorative justice, attachment parenting, and a million more. To undo the damage that the Age of Usury has wrought on nature, culture, health, and spirit will require all the gifts that make us human, and indeed is so impossibly demanding that it will take those gifts to a new level of development.
Just as usury-money has mobilized humanity’s gifts for the purposes of growth and domination, the new money will mobilize them for healing and beauty. Because money will not be under compulsion to grow, no longer will art be under compulsion to sell itself. Today, any endeavor that does not involve an expansion of the realm of monetized goods and services must go against the economic current. Such is the character of exponential money. But cyclical money has a different character: anything that violate’s nature’s law “Waste is food” will go against the economic current. The division between work and art will disappear, and it will no longer be possible to be a sellout. The conflict between our idealism and economic necessity will vanish.
This might seem hopelessly naive, vague, and idealistic. I draw out the logic in The Ascent of Humanity and the previous essays in this series. My upcoming book will flesh it out in greater detail. For now, weigh the competing voices of your idealism and your cynicism, and ask yourself, “Can you bear to settle for anything less?” Can you bear to accept a world of great and growing ugliness? Can you stand to believe that it is inevitable? You cannot. Such a belief will slowly but surely kill your soul. That is because it is not true. The mind likes cynicism, its comfort and safety, and hesitates to believe anything extraordinary, but the heart urges otherwise; it urges us to beauty, and only by heeding its call can we dare create a new Story of the People.
We are here to create something beautiful; I call it “the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible.” As the truth of that sinks in, deeper and deeper, and as the convergence of crises pushes us out of the old world, I think that more and more people will live from that truth: the truth that more for you is not less for me; the truth that what I do unto you, so I do unto myself; the truth of living to give what you can and take what you need. We can start doing it right now. We are afraid, but when we do it for real, the world meets our needs and more. We then find that the story of Separation, embodied in the money we have known, is not true and never was. Yet, the last ten millennia were not in vain. Sometimes it is necessary to live a lie to its fullest before we are ready to take the next step into the truth. The lie of separation in the age of usury is now complete. We have explored its fullness, its furthest extremes, and seen all it has wrought, the deserts and the prisons, the concentration camps and the wars, the wastage of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Now, the capacities we have developed through this long journey of ascent will serve us well in the imminent Age of Reunion.
This article originally appeared in Reality Sandwich