One day my great uncle, at that point a young lawyer, came home to find his wife, my Great aunt Florence, crying.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Aunt Florence tearfully told him that she had torn up an envelope, thinking it was junk mail, and later realized there had been a check for $100 in it, payment for a short story Uncle Edwin had written for Boys’ Life. $100 was a good chunk of change back then in 1920, around the time this occurred.
“Acchh, money,” said Uncle Edwin, consoling her. “It’s just a means of exchange.”
If only he were right. Seems pretty simple and I guess most fundamentally, he is right. But we attach so much more to it—our security, our identity. We trade it for what we think will give us comfort, prestige, success, beauty, and an aura of intelligence and even wisdom.
“When you’re rich, they think you really know” sings Tevya in the musical Fiddler On The Roof
But what exactly are we exchanging?
So we exchange away, we exchange our lives for this means of exchange. We labor. Too often it means working in jobs we hate, working for people who demean us or exploit us.
Then we get our paychecks, and seek ways to find recompense for the unfulfilling hours of our lives we’ve spent to acquire it — trading it for stuff to make us comfortable, prestigious, successful, beautiful.
Sometimes we find we don’t have enough of this exchange medium, so then we go further and exchange our future for it—we go into debt. By going into debt we build walls between ourselves and our liberty, because now we have to work harder and longer servicing the debt. We exchange our future for more exchange medium.
Ultimately this “means of exchange” winds up being the medium of our prison. We have taken what would be a better guarantee of happiness—more time with family and friends and greater choice of right livelihood—for an illusion.
“Money makes the world go round” sings the M.C. in another musical, “Cabaret.”
So, what if we took money out of the equation?
What if we found a way to eliminate money from our lives? Screeech!!!
I can hear the sound of the needle on the LP screeching to a halt—all the music stopping and all that’s left is silence as people think, “huh??”
But, we HAVE to have money!
If all of a sudden money went up in a poof of smoke, or if it were exposed as the illusion it truly is, what would happen?
Would we disappear from the earth? No. We might be more in touch with it.
Would we still have access to food, shelter, clothing? Well, think about it. Perhaps we would then learn to work cooperatively in communities and share labor and simple resources, like they do in Amish communities. We would, as part of this shared community, cultivate and grows plants from real seed for real food. We would share livestock, birds, and fish.
Wouldn’t our lives be pure drudgery? How would we have fun? Despite what people think in this high-tech entertainment world, fun is fundamentally available for free. We’ve just forgotten how to have fun without paying for it.
Yes, Virginia, there is life beyond Versace, contrary to what the advertising world will tell you. There is even life without money. The birds do it, and the bees do it.
“Look at the lilies of the field. They neither labor nor spin” says Jesus (Matthew 6:28)
So, what is a world without money?
I am not an economist by any means. But I think it’s interesting to just sit for a moment and challenge the paradigm that we have to have money in its current form to live. Really. Think about it. What if our current caste system, which is driven by our “net worth,” was gone? What if there was a New World summit that could hammer out solutions for removing the source of social inequality, greed, misplaced ambitions, years of hard labor, and the idea of “retirement.”
Think about it. Just imagine a world without currency as a means of exchange.
“A broadly integrated synthesis of theory, policy, and practice, Sacred Economics explores avant-garde concepts of the New Economics, including negative-interest currencies, local currencies, resource-based economics, gift economies, and the restoration of the commons. Author Charles Eisenstein also considers the personal dimensions of this transition, speaking to those concerned with “right livelihood” and how to live according to their ideals in a world seemingly ruled by money.”
An Elevated Life
There are many, many ideas laid out in Sacred Economics, and there are so many provocative ones. One of the primary ideas is that our current system promotes a scarcity economy, while a gift economy promotes a plentitude economy. I love the fact that Eisenstein presents his ideas in a way that shows that by giving up some of our profane habits, we elevate ourselves to the sacred. There is no reason to think that giving up money is going to diminish us—on the contrary, it will elevate us. It will open up all kinds of opportunities for right livelihood. We bow into service to a life worth living. We serve each other and by serving one, we serve all. This is not laying down our daily lives for a company that exploits, denudes, or deprives. Eisenstein says,
“It is ironic indeed that money, originally a means of connecting gifts with needs, originally an outgrowth of a sacred gift economy, is precisely what blocks the blossoming of our desire to give, keeping us in deadening jobs out of economic necessity, and forestalling our most generous impulses with the words, ‘I can’t afford to do that.’”
By the way, in keeping with the spirit of the philosophy of sacred economics, you can buy the book, or you can read it online for free.
The Appeal to our Self-Interest
The main reason for exploring this new way of thinking about money at all is one which should appeal to our self-interest: Our current growth economy is simply not sustainable.
We are going to deplete all of nature’s resources and basically hand over our survival on this planet to the 1%, because income disparity will continue to widen, and the resulting impoverishment will run deep—even as the natural resources of the Earth dry up. Something to think about.
Deep Economy from the Well of Community
The other book I read which is not specifically on the concept of gift economy but certainly outlines a transition to a more sustainable economy is Deep Economy by Bill McKibben. McKibben, author of many seminal books on ecology and climate change, offers some interesting alternatives to a more sustainable way of doing things right in our own backyard. For instance, simply orienting ourselves to our local communities will help right some of the inherent dangers in relying on giant corporations and foreign exports to drive our consumption.
In doing so, we build valuable social capital, and McKibben quantifies that social capital. He shows us that the way we are living now–consuming mindlessly with false assumptions about true value–is built on faulty logic. The same faulty logic that is used to justify working 40 hours a week simply because we think we“have to work”, even if by working we have to pay for childcare, car payments, transportation costs, work clothes and eating out. The same faulty logic that justifies eating cheap, processed food, even when the long term costs in terms of our health will be so much greater.
Is All Growth Inherently Good?
It’s natural to think that all growth is good. After all, nature is prolific in how it grows. Human life is prolific in its growth as well. So, it makes sense that we see economic growth the same way. But not all growth is positive and life-affirming. Cancer grows and cuts off life by upsetting the delicate balance of natural systems in the body. Unrestrained economic growth is the same kind of cancer—taking over, dominating, crowding out the sacred connections to the broader, more organic systems in our communities and our culture at large.
We can go along on the current path, believing that “capitalism isn’t perfect, but it’s the best way.” Or, we can open our minds to another way. Improve the capitalism we have now. Or come up with something entirely different.