Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of being. (Heidegger)
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can talk with him? (Zhuangzi)
To say we have gone further down the rabbit hole the past few years is to measure the present against some vision of normality. It certainly seems as though there is some level of absurdity underpinning events within the modern global culture. Metrics tell us we have never been better off, whilst other metrics tell us we are on the brink of catastrophe. It is within this context that I have been trying to make some sense of what the hell is going on, for some time now but with an earnest over the past few years. This has lead me down several rabbit holes, forcing me to confront my own vision of normality. This year I have read several profound books which have helped me further clarify what I think might describe how things have come to be the way they are. It is not a case of what we think, but how. This is such a simple statement to make, but a much harder one to fully comprehend the significance of.
I started this year by reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and everything fell into place. Building on and clarifying an intuition that had been growing, this book set the tone for what I would read and think about this year. McGilchrist says, “certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong,” adding that, “none of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.” And this, it seems to me, is where we are at today. Politics aside, no one seems to have illustrated this global predicament more this year than Jordan Peterson. I read Maps of Meaning after The Master and his Emissary, at the suggestion that Peterson’s ideas mapped somewhat onto McGilchrist’s. It is perhaps this that has occupied my academic enquiry the most this year.
The other two books that most occupied me this year were Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. Whilst quite different to McGilchrist and Peterson, I have found a common thread underpinning these four books, illuminated along the way by returning to Heraclitus, and a new (to me) philosophical translation of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall. The implications of this leave no aspect of ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environment untouched, and an appreciation of which could lead the way to a more harmonious way of life. Eisenstein says:
Under the sway of dualism, we have essentially sought to divide the world into two parts, one infinite and the other finite, and then to live wholly in the latter which, because it is finite, is amenable to control. Our lordship over nature is at heart an egregious self-deception, because its first step is to attempt nature’s precipitous reduction, which is equally a reduction of life, a reduction of experience, a reduction of feeling, and a reduction of being: a true Faustian exchange of the infinite for the finite. This reduction comes in many guises and goes by many names. It is the domestication of the wild; it is the measuring and quantification of nature; it is the conversion of cultural, natural, social, and spiritual wealth into money. Because it is a reduction of life, violence is its inevitable accompaniment; hence the rising crescendo of violence that has bled our civilisation for thousands of years and approaches its feverish apogee as we conclude the present wholesale destruction of entire species, oceans, ecosystems, languages, cultures, and peoples.
What follows is my analysis of a way of thinking that has been influenced this year by these books. A few disclaimers: I have done my best to eschew the ‘poeticism’ of my previous years in review and write as clearly and succinctly as possible. It is of course impossible and pointless for me to summarise large academic texts, so I would refer you to the books themselves for the full extrapolation. Rather, I have taken sections from each to build up a picture of how various seemingly different ideas are implicitly interlinked. Despite my intentions, this is not an academic essay and therefore I am well aware that, whilst I have tried hard not to, I may seem to contradict myself in places and to use some terminology confusingly. My hope is that, if you are interested in thinking about the world, you may want to engage with these ideas in constructive discussion. I certainly would not confess to having things figured out, but I feel comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life, with my narrative.
Adam John Miller
20th December 2018
Up until now, we have sought to make the infinite finite, and thereby debased art, love, knowledge, science, and beauty all. We have sold them out. When commercial application guides science, we end up not with science but with its counterfeit: pseudoscience in service of profit. When art bows to money, we get “art” instead of art, a self-conscious self-caricature. Similar perversions result when knowledge is subordinated to power, when beauty is used to sell product, and when wealth tries to buy love or love is turned toward gaining wealth. But the age of the sellout is over.
The long ascent of the monetised realm is drawing to a close, and its role in our work and our lives is changing so as to upend long-held intuitions, fears, and limitations. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, money has been, increasingly, both a universal means and a universal end, the object of limitless desire. No longer. Its retreat has begun, and we will devote more and more of our energy to those areas that money cannot reach. The growth of leisure, or, more accurately, the growth of labor done for love, goes hand in hand with the degrowth of the money economy.
Questions immediately arise in the reader. Despite the foregoing, you may have even caught yourself thinking, “But doesn’t an artist deserve to be compensated for his work?” The intuitions of separation run so deeply! So let us rephrase it: “Doesn’t the giver of great gifts deserve to receive great gifts in return?” The answer, insofar as “deserves” means anything at all, is yes. In a sacred economy, this will happen through the mechanism of gratitude rather than compulsion. The attitude of the seller says, “I will give you this gift-but only if you pay me for it, only if you give me what I think it is worth.” (Yet no matter what the price, the seller will always feel shortchanged.) The attitude of the giver, in contrast, says, “I will give you this gift — and I trust you to give me what you think is appropriate.” If you give a great gift, and no gratitude results, then perhaps that is a sign that you have given it to the wrong person. The spirit of the Gift responds to needs. To generate gratitude is not the goal of giving; it is a sign, an indicator, that the gift was given well, that it met a need. That is another reason I disagree with certain spiritual teachings that say a person of true generosity will not desire to receive anything, even gratitude, in return.
The situation is this: some of our needs are vastly overfulfilled while others go tragically unmet. We in the richest societies have too many calories even as we starve for beautiful, fresh food; we have overlarge houses but lack spaces that truly embody our individuality and connectedness; media surround us everywhere while we starve for authentic communication. We are offered entertainment every second of the day but lack the chance to play. In the ubiquitous realm of money, we hunger for all that is intimate, personal, and unique. We know more about the lives of Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, and Lindsay Lohan than we do about our own neighbours, with the result that we really don’t know anyone, and are barely known by anyone either.
The things we need the most are the things we have become most afraid of, such as adventure, intimacy, and authentic communication. We avert our eyes and stick to comfortable topics. We hold it as a virtue to be private, to be discreet, so that no one sees our dirty laundry. Life has become a private affair. We are uncomfortable with intimacy and connection, which are among the greatest of our unmet needs today. To be truly seen and heard, to be truly known, is a deep human need. Our hunger for it is so omnipresent, so much a part of our experience of life, that we no more know what it is we are missing than a fish knows it is wet. We need way more intimacy than nearly anyone considers normal. Always hungry for it, we seek solace and sustenance in the closest available substitutes: television, shopping, pornography, conspicuous consumption — anything to ease the hurt, to feel connected, or to project an image by which we might be seen and known, or at least see and know ourselves.
Clearly, the transition to a sacred economy accompanies a transition in our psychology. Community, which in today’s parlance usually means proximity or a mere network, is a much deeper kind of connection than that: it is a sharing of one’s being, an expansion of one’s self. To be in community is to be in personal, interdependent relationship, and it comes with a price: our illusion of independence, our freedom from obligation. You can’t have it both ways. If you want community, you must be willing to be obligated, dependent, tied, attached. You will give and receive gifts that you cannot just buy somewhere. You will not be able to easily find another source. You need each other.
Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition.
More information including the whole book available under Creative Commons license here.
Gold does not harmonize with the character of our goods. Gold and straw, gold and petrol, gold and guano, gold and bricks, gold and iron, gold and hides! Only a wild fancy, a monstrous hallucination, only the doctrine of “value” can bridge the gulf. Commodities in general, straw, petrol, guano and the rest can be safely exchanged only when everyone is indifferent as to whether he possesses money or goods, and that is possible only if money is afflicted with all the defects inherent in our products. That is obvious. Our goods rot, decay, break, rust, so only if money has equally disagreeable, loss-involving properties can it effect exchange rapidly, securely and cheaply. For such money can never, on any account, be preferred by anyone to goods.
Only money that goes out of date like a newspaper, rots like potatoes, rusts like iron, evaporates like ether, is capable of standing the test as an instrument for the exchange of potatoes, newspapers, iron, and ether. For such money is not preferred to goods either by the purchaser or the seller. We then part with our goods for money only because we need the money as a means of exchange, not because we expect an advantage from possession of the money.
Silvio Gesell, The Natural Economic Order.
It is no accident that ancient Greece, the place where symbolic money originated, also gave birth to the modern conception of the individual, to the notions of logic and reason, and to the philosophical underpinnings of the modern mind. In his scholarly masterpiece Money and the Ancient Greek Mind, classics professor Richard Seaford explores the impact of money on Greek society and thought, illuminating the characteristics that make money unique. Among them are that it is both concrete and abstract, that it is homogeneous, impersonal, a universal aim, and a universal means, and that it is unlimited. The entrance of this new, unique power into the world had profound consequences, many of which are now so deeply woven into our beliefs and culture, psyche and society, that we can barely perceive them, let alone question them.
Money is homogeneous in that regardless of any physical differences among coins, coins qua money are identical (if they are of the same denomination). New or old, worn or smooth, all one drachma coins are equal. This was something new in the sixth century BCE. Whereas in archaic times, Seaford observes, power was conferred by unique talismanic objects (e.g., a scepter said to be handed down from Zeus), money is the opposite: its power is conferred by a standard sign that wipes out variations in purity and weight. Quality is not important, only quantity. Because money is convertible into all other things, it infects them with the same feature, turning them into commodities— objects that, as long as they meet certain criteria, are seen as identical. All that matters is how many or how much. Money, says Seaford, “promotes a sense of homogeneity among things in general.” All things are equal, because they can be sold for money, which can in turn be used to buy any other thing.
In the commodity world, things are equal to the money that can replace them. Their primary attribute is their “value”—an abstraction. I feel a distancing, a letdown, in the phrase, “You can always buy another one.” Can you see how this promotes an anti-materialism, a detachment from the physical world in which each person, place, and thing is special, unique? No wonder Greek philosophers of this era began elevating the abstract over the real, culminating in Plato’s invention of a world of perfect forms more real than the world of the senses. No wonder to this day we treat the physical world so cavalierly. No wonder, after two thousand years’ immersion in the mentality of money, we have become so used to the replaceability of all things that we behave as if we could, if we wrecked the planet, simply buy a new one.
I named this chapter “Money and the Mind.” Very much like the fiduciary value of money, mind is an abstraction riding a physical vehicle. Like monetary fiduciarity, the idea of mind as a separate, non-material essence of being developed over thousands of years, leading to the modern concept of an immaterial consciousness, a disembodied spirit. Tellingly, in both secular and religious thought, this abstraction has become more important than the physical vehicle, just as the “value” of a thing is more important than its physical attributes.
One manifestation of this spirit-matter split that gives primacy to the former is the idea, “Sure, economic reform is a worthy cause, but what is much more important is a transformation of human consciousness.” I think this view is mistaken, for it is based on a false dichotomy of consciousness and action, and ultimately of spirit and matter. On a deep level, money and consciousness are intertwined. Each is bound up in the other.
The development of monetary abstraction fits into a vast meta-historical context. Money could not have developed without a foundation of abstraction in the form of words and numbers. Already, number and label distance us from the real world and prime our minds to think abstractly. To use a noun already implies an identity among the many things so named; to say there are five of a thing makes each a unit. We begin to think of objects as representatives of a category, and not unique beings in themselves. So, while standard, generic categories didn’t begin with money, money vastly accelerated their conceptual dominance. Moreover, the homogeneity of money accompanied the rapid development of standardized commodity goods for trade. Such standardization was crude in pre-industrial times, but today manufactured objects are so nearly identical as to make the lie of money into the truth.
Money as a universal aim is embedded in our language. We speak of “capitalizing” on our ideas and use “gratuitous,” which literally means received with thanks (and not payment), as a synonym for unnecessary. It is embedded in economics to be sure, in the assumption that human beings seek to maximize a self-interest that is equivalent to money. It is even embedded in science, where it is a cipher for reproductive self-interest. Here, too, the notion of a universal aim has taken hold.
That there is even such a thing as a universal aim to life (be it money or something else) is not at all obvious. This idea apparently arose at about the same time money did; perhaps it was money that suggested it to philosophers. Socrates used a money metaphor explicitly in proposing intelligence as universal aim: “There is only one right currency for which we ought to exchange all these other things [pleasures and pains]—intelligence.” In religion this corresponds to the pursuit of an ultimate aim, such as salvation or enlightenment, from which all other good things flow. How like the unlimited aim of money! I wonder what the effect would be on our spirituality if we gave up on the pursuit of a unitary, abstract goal that we believe to be the key to everything else. How would it feel to release the endless campaign to improve ourselves, to make progress toward a goal? What would it be like just to play instead, just to be? Like wealth, enlightenment is a goal that knows no limit, and in both cases the pursuit of it can enslave. In both cases, I think that the object of the pursuit is a spurious substitute for a diversity of things that people really want.
In a fully monetized society, in which nearly everything is a good or a service, money converts the multiplicity of the world into a unity, a “single thing that is the measure of, and exchangeable with, almost anything else.” The apeiron, the logos, and similar conceptions were all versions of an underlying unity that gives birth to all things. It is that from which all things arise and to which all things return. As such it is nearly identical with the ancient Chinese conception of the Tao, which gives birth to yin and yang, and then to the ten thousand things. Interestingly, the semi-legendary preceptor of Taoism, Lao Tzu, lived at approximately the same time as the pre-Socratic philosophers —which is also more or less the time of the first Chinese coinage. In any event, today it is still money that gives birth to the ten thousand things. Whatever you want to build in this world, you start with an investment, with money. And then, when you have finished your project, it is time to sell it. All things come from money; all things return to money.
Unlike physical goods, the abstraction of money allows us, in principle, to possess unlimited quantities of it. Thus it is easy for economists to believe in the possibility of endless exponential growth, where a mere number represents the size of the economy. The sum total of all goods and services is a number, and what limit is there on the growth of a number? Lost in abstraction, we ignore the limits of nature and culture to accommodate our growth. Following Plato, we make the abstraction more real than the reality, fixing Wall Street while the real economy languishes. The monetary essence of things is called “value,” which, as an abstracted, uniform essence, reduces the plurality of the world. All things are reduced to what they are worth. This gives the illusion that the world is as limitless as numbers are. For a price, you can buy anything.
Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition
Last week I had two brushes with the mainstream of American culture and politics. The first was an appearance on a PBS television show, the Tavis Smiley show. As far as I can remember, this was only the second time I’ve been on a national TV program. The other time was in South Africa on a business program. On that occasion, I said something like, “The wealthy neighborhoods I’ve seen in South Africa are not truly wealthy. Real wealth is not razor wire fences and security walls and surveillance systems. Real wealth is to feel safe and free. It is to belong in the place you live. Real wealth is to feel at home in the world. Therefore it is impossible to be truly wealthy in an unequal society.” Continue reading