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.
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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
Let us call this approach storyteller consciousness. Instead of seeking to describe a reality already out there, we will be aware that we create reality through our story about it. In science, storyteller consciousness means being aware of the creative nature of theories and experiments, whose very language encodes deep assumptions about self and universe. In technology, it is to see our choices as a way to define our relationship with each other and the rest of life. It asks the question, “Who are we creating ourselves as?” The forms and institutions of politics and government will change most radically of all, as we begin to disbelieve in our labels, categories, and abstractions, and come into contact with human reality. All of these forms and institutions are themselves stories. America is a story. France is a story. The law is a story. Words and symbols, that is all, with no more meaning than what we agree upon. Our mistake has been not in telling stories, only in thinking they are real. When we let go of that, we will be able to play with them consciously and let them go when they no longer serve us. I think there are stories that will serve the world much better than the ones we have right now. But I leave it to others to tell the story of a future politics and government aligned with what I have already described of the Age of Reunion.
Over thousands of years, the creative play of story-telling has come to enslave us, and we have lost the storyteller’s consciousness. Finally we are awakening, as the effort to maintain the pretense overwhelms us. We cannot maintain the story any more. The story of linearity, the story of separation, the lonely story of a discrete self marooned in a world of other. The story that we are not storytellers, not authors but mere reporters, describing what is, reacting, managing, controlling. We are awakening from that story now, the story that we are not the authors of our world and of our lives.
Indeed it is in our personal lives that the enslavement to unconscious stories has been the most devastating. We live in a fabricated world of interpretation that we mistake for reality. We live in a world of judgments and imposed meanings. Maybe Dad shouted at me a lot, and since I was three I made it mean that I am bad. She left you, and you interpreted it as a betrayal, and made it mean you are unworthy of love, and so you find yourself holding on, manipulating, controlling. We live in our stories, which then create events to justify themselves and strengthen our enslavement.
The origins and multitudinous variations of these stories are beyond the scope of this book; often they are extremely subtle and, because they conform to larger cultural stories of self, wholly invisible. Like the broader, cultural stories, they enslave us only to the extent that they are unconscious. I am advocating the enlightenment and not the abolition of our stories. Yes, we can come back to the present moment, the present experience, and release all judgment if we so choose, just as we can return if we choose to the lingua adamica. However, we are not meant to stay there. We are meant to foray into three-dimensional reality, space and linear time, and to create beauty with their tools. We are meant to create meaning and create stories. I am not advocating that we surrender our existence as time-bound material beings, just as I do not propose that we abdicate the gifts of culture and technology that make us human. No longer, though, need we be enslaved to those meanings, to those stories, or to our technology. To enter the Age of Reunion is to awaken to our power as conscious creators.
Although I do not claim to have mastered them, I would like to share with you some principles that have been personally useful to me in becoming the conscious creator of my stories. After all, the collective transformation I speak of will only come through a coalescence of many personal transformations. In this book I have mentioned three cultural stories that many of us have deeply internalized. The first is the Newtonian world of force and mass, which manifests in our personal lives as a feeling of compulsion and powerlessness. In language it appears in words like, “have to”, “can’t”, “must”, “should”, “I will try”, and “you made me”. The second is the Cartesian split of ourselves into body and soul, a good part and a bad part. It manifests in life as a constant struggle of self-denial and perpetual sacrifice of the present for the future, producing a battle against desire and the imposition of the civilized and conditioned over the natural and the wild. In language, it again manifests as “should” and “shouldn’t”. The third story is that of separation and scarcity. Manifesting in phrases like “can afford to”, it disbelieves in our connection to the universe and all life that brings our gifts inevitably back to ourselves, which would make control and domination are unnecessary.
Even naming these stories and observing them in operation already makes them less powerful. However, I have found it useful to deliberately undo them through the way I speak to myself and others. We can use words in ways that deny the stories that enslave us, and thus accelerate our freedom. For example, Marshall Rosenberg suggests rephrasing every “have to” sentence as “I choose to… because…” Here is a personal example. I used to say, “Even though I hate it, I have to give grades.” When I rephrased it as “I choose to give grades because I am afraid I will lose my job if I don’t,” everything became much clearer. I realized that my job was much less important to me than my sense of integrity, which for me personally was violated by giving grades, and so I decided to leave academia. By thinking in terms of “have to” we surrender our power. The very words carry within them an assumption of powerlessness. Another substitution I’ve been making is to replace “you should” with “you could”, and “I should” with “I can” or “I want to”. You can also experiment by abolishing “I will try…” from your lexicon, especially the lexicon of your internal dialog, and replace it simply with “I will…” If you are true to your word, you will think very carefully before agreeing to anything. “I will try” can be a cop-out, a polite way of saying you won’t actually do it. It also encodes an assumption of helplessness, a world of external forces that thwart our creativity. All of this deserves a much more thorough discussion than I am giving it, but that will have to await a future book. For now, simply observe that a wholly different way of thinking underlies “I can”, “I choose to”, and “I want to”. The story of powerlessness cannot be told with them.
Here is another kind of empowerment, relating to the second internalized story I mentioned. In contrast to my personal age of reason that I described in Chapter Three, I no longer attempt to justify with reasons everything I do. Instead I say, “I did it because I wanted to.” What! That’s not allowed, is it? We can’t follow desire, can we? That resistance to desire is another manifestation of the body-soul division. The good part, the higher part, the spiritual part—the mind and the will—must master the bad part, the fleshly desires. Sacrifice now for a future reward. It is just another variation of the mentality of agriculture, channeled through religion and education, that still dominates us today. Yet Heaven remains forever just around the corner.
Traditional cultures recognized an importance to stories beyond mere reportage or children’s entertainment. Story-telling was also a sacred function that carried the spirit of the people and created their world. It is not only the sounds of the lingua adamica that have a sacred generative power; our stories do as well. Today we wield that power unconsciously, thus creating unintended effects. We do not know our own power, the power of word. In a way, all speech is a story, because all speech creates a new addition to the world of representation. All speech therefore bears a generative power, just as the Native Americans believed, because we enact that world of representation. We live our story, we stamp it onto the world. Why, then, do our words seem so impotent today? It is because, just as our great immersive cultural stories and ideologies are invisible to us, we use words unconsciously too. It is not conscious lying that is weak, it is unconscious lying. A deliberate lie is still a conscious act of world-creation. Many if not all of the disempowering forms of speech described above are unconscious lies. If you would like to restore to your words their generative power, you must treat them as golden. One weakening form of speech is swearing. “Fuck.” What are we really saying when we make a sacred life-creating pleasure into a vulgar term of deprecation? “Damn.” Do we really wish eternal torment on someone? No, we are speaking unconsciously. Other weakening forms of speech include gossip, small talk, and various forms of negativity. I won’t go into detail here, but I invite you to consider: what world-creating story are we telling when we speak like that? For words to truly be powerful, we must align them with our creative intention. Only then can we create the stories of our lives.
Unconscious lying sabotages our credibility to ourselves and others. If we cultivate the habit of speaking truthfully and treating our word as golden, then when we declare great things, they will come to pass. The more we realize the power of our words, the more mindful our speech becomes; the more mindful our speech, the greater the power of our words. We condition ourselves to our words always coming true, and foster a deep confidence in the magical creative power of our speech.
Whether on the collective or personal level, storyteller consciousness is inseparable from the new sense of self that defines the Age of Reunion. It depends on a blurring of the defining distinction of the Age of Separation, between the observer in here and the objective world out there. It will emerge spontaneously, in tandem with the crisis-induced disintegration of the illusion of separation. The story of powerlessness and separation simply won’t be captivating anymore! In its place we will have a story of connectedness, of interbeing, of participation in the all-encompassing circle of the gift. And part of this story is actually a meta-story, a story about stories that invests all of our stories with creative power and motivates us to be conscious in their telling.
If I have been vague about what this will actually look like in the future, it is probably because the society that may be built around storyteller consciousness centuries hence is so unlike what we have today that I hardly dare describe it on paper. Instead of the present demarcation between drama and real life, future society will consist of stories within stories within stories, plays within plays within plays without any sense that one is “for real” and one is not. Life will be all play, and all play will be in earnest. We might commit to some of these stories as deeply as a human being can commit to anything, as passionately as the greatest artist cares about his greatest masterpiece. Each life will be a masterpiece, and some of our collective projects will span generations and alter the fabric of (what we call) reality. This will be the eventual fulfillment of the Age of Reunion, when we come into full, conscious co-creative partnership with the universe itself. In the meantime, in the next century or so, great storytellers will emerge to inspire us with beautiful and believable stories of what life can be, visions of the world we can create. Those stories will have roles for each of us that draw upon our gifts and develop our potential. It is happening already. Have you heard the casting call? A beautiful life is being offered, if we can only find the courage.
Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity.
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