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Book of the Day: What Comes After Money?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
9th November 2012


* Book: What Comes After Money? Essays from Reality Sandwich on Transforming Currency and Community, edited by Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan. EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books, 2011.

Contributors to this collection of essays include economist Bernard Lietaer, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, musician Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky), theoretical physicist Amit Goswami, Larry Harvey (founder of Burning Man), and alternative historian Peter Lamborn Wilson.

Reality Sandwich publisher Daniel Pinchbeck offers an introduction:

“The money game … We are all forced to play it, whether we like it or not. A few leap across the Monopoly board with great gusto, building or toppling companies, gobbling up futures on resources and minerals, speculating on currencies. Some market new cultural products — images, memes, books, lines of software code, musical jingles — as their gambits and dice throws in the global casino. Others, dealt a worse hand, play a more brutal version of the game in the back alleys of third world cities, begging for baksheesh, selling their sex for a meager sum, sending their children to work in factories or collect bits of nickel and aluminum from toxic trash heaps. Simply by virtue of being born into this single global system, this omni-oppressive world order, we are all conscripted into a relentless contest, a ceaseless tumult.

Ever since the mangling of his ideas led to horrific dictatorships and genocidal regimes over the last century, the philosopher Karl Marx has been out of fashion, neglected and suppressed. This is understandable but unfortunate, as many of his insights into the mythic dimensions of money and the workings of capital deserve reconsideration. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx describes money as “the visible divinity” in our capitalist world: “By possessing the property of buying everything, by possessing the property of appropriating all objects, money is thus the object of eminent possession. The universality of its property is the omnipotence of its being. It therefore functions as almighty being. Money is the pimp between man’s need and the object, between his life and his means of life. But that which mediates my life for me, also mediates the existence of other people for me. For me it is the other person.” Since birth, we have been trained like performing seals to accept the spiteful conjuror’s trick that transmutes any and all qualities into quantities-into bigger or smaller piles of cash. Seemingly without an alternative, most of us accept a system in which everything and everyone has its price, and beneath every celebration lies a cynical calculation.

Hypnotized by our culture, most people believe that our current form of money is the only rational way to exchange value — that a debt-based currency, detached from any tangible asset, is something as organic and inevitable as carbon molecules, ice, or photosynthesis. We forget that money, in its current form, is just a tool. Humans created money to perform certain functions and satisfy certain needs. But just as engineers and computer programmers drop cruder, out-of-date tools and pick up better ones as soon as they become available, we might also switch to more sophisticated instruments for transferring goods and services that function more efficiently and equitably. We could implement new mechanisms and platforms for exchanging value that we have designed to prevent the destructive social and ecological feedback loops produced by our current financial system. As an operating system for society, money needs a major upgrade. This upgrade will not just happen on its own; we need to apply our intelligence and creativity to make it happen.

This requires an act of will, and a leap of faith, from many of us. Personally, I grew up with an artistic New York background and, until a few years ago, I never gave much thought to economics, considering it incredibly boring, useless, and the opposite of anything cool. About five years ago, I began to comprehend that the underlying logic of our economic system was inciting a systemic crash — that our model of endless growth on a finite planet was bringing about mass species extinction, mass pollution, and was somehow linked to a nihilistic value system that mortgaged the future of the planet for the instant gratification of the lucky few. When we launched our web magazine Reality Sandwich, we made alternative approaches to our economy one of our areas of focus, and a priority. First appearing in Reality Sandwich, the essays included in this book present a range of perspectives on the problems endemic to our current financial system, and propose tangible ways to change it. For those who are not used to this type of discussion, it takes a while to familiarize yourself with the issues and the terminology, but the effort is worth it, as the subject is of critical importance.

Over the last half-century, the mainstream culture institutionalized hipster rebellion and integrated it within the corporate mainstream, which constantly instructs us to “Just Do It,” “Think Different,” “FCUK,” and the like. Corporations took our innate impulse toward dissent and our desire for meaningful change, and transmuted them into effective sales tools for their products. The new counterculture, which I believe Reality Sandwich represents, goes beyond easily assimilated gestures of rebellion to interrogate and analyze the underpinnings of our current destructive social order. We believe it is no longer enough to propose alternatives — we need to implement them, instead of waiting around, expecting that someone else is going to do it for us. For this reason, along with Reality Sandwich, we launched a social network, Evolver.net, which provides the organizing hub for what we call the Evolver Social Movement. The ESM brings together local communities that share a vision of how society could be transformed under a global umbrella, and promotes initiatives in permaculture, public performance, local currencies, and viable alternatives in many areas. Evolver actively seeks to collaborate with other movements and organizations that employ DIY tactics to revitalize civil society, such as Transition Town, the Zeitgeist Movement, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Burners Without Borders, et cetera. We propose that reimagining and reinventing society through conscious collaboration is the avant-garde art form of our time.

While rarely discussed in the mainstream media, an awakening is currently underway: More and more people are coming to realize that what we use as money is not some natural force or omnipotent being, but a magic spell. This spell is maintained by the oracles and high priests of finance from their well-guarded temples — the banks and treasuries — where they alchemically transmute little bits of paper or blips of data into valuable artifacts, using occult symbol, incantation, and numerical abracadabra. Indeed, what the financial sorcerers fear more than anything is a collective loss of faith in the abstruse and arcane instruments they use to bind the great human mob in invisible chains of debt, servitude, and scarcity.

The political philosopher Antonio Negri demystified “capital” by defining it, simply, as a “social relation.” What does this mean? When a billionaire walks into the room, everyone reacts as though the intangible assets circulating as data streams in his investment portfolio are as real as the armor that Tony Stark puts on when he becomes Iron Man. These streams of virtual data permit the tycoon to control servants, private security forces, mansions, yachts, Picassos, and whatnot. In actual fact, the extraordinary superpowers ascribed to such a personage exist only in the mind.

If a sudden pulse of solar radiation wiped out our hard drives, everyone would quickly see that stored capital was merely a cultural convention, a belief system. The billionaire would lose all of his perceived superpowers and, like an incredible shrinking magnate, retract back to modest size. The vast apparatus of contemporary media and the sleek glass architecture of corporate skyscrapers are designed to reinforce unquestioning obedience and faith in this belief system of capitalism, which gives the privileged few the power of life and death over the multitudinous many.

Antiglobalization activists often proclaim that another world is possible. They declare their faith that the current, tragically unjust orchestration of capital is not the only way we can organize our planetary community, even at our current level of size and complexity. Most people find it almost impossible to imagine a systemic alternative. This seeming impossibility of envisioning and then constructing a viable alternative is an illusion. The corporate media constantly imprints and indoctrinates us into unquestioning belief that the way it is now is the only way it can be. The system keeps our consciousness trapped within a particular set of beliefs, a certain frequency of awareness and closed framing of our reality. The media ignores the alternatives that already exist, and constantly amps up people’s fear of losing what little they have. For those who see beyond these prison walls, it is not enough to insist upon the possibility of another world. We need to understand how we can construct the alternative, and then work together to bring it about.

There was a time before our current monetary system existed, and there will be a time after it is gone. We can look, without sentimentality or nostalgia, at the practices of premodern indigenous cultures that didn’t need lawyers, accountants, Swiss bank accounts, or land that could be owned. These cultures organized themselves around gift exchange rather than financial transaction. For indigenous people in Australia or South America, power is not something that can be hoarded; power can only be expressed in the living present, through ceremony, initiation, and action. As anthropologist Pierre Clastres discusses in Society Against the State, the tribal chief is generally the one who owns the least, as he gains respect by giving away everything that comes to him to maintain harmony and balance among his people. His generosity is a source of power. These cultures may provide keys for us, models to make use of as we go forward, reinventing our institutions and technologies so they support long-range prosperity for everyone on earth.

When the Thai baht suddenly ceases to function, when the Mexico peso bites the dust, these devastating traumas have nothing to do with the productivity of the local lands or the skills of the people. Neither their houses and farms nor the machines in their factories suddenly molt or liquefy; the abstract data flows manipulated by the financial elites are all that shift. For some reason, we have vested a small coterie of avaricious speculators with the ability to dismantle a nation’s economy in a matter of hours, as they follow flickering tugs of fear and greed.

Our current monoculture of money enforces aggressive, competitive, and unsustainable patterns of behavior by creating artificial scarcity. When you get a loan from a bank, the bank gives you the principle, but does not create the interest. Therefore, you are forced to go out into society and compete against everyone else to bring back the interest that accrues. Publicly traded corporations, similarly, are forced to maximize profits to satisfy their shareholders, and therefore must use the most expedient methods to create revenue, even when this means sabotaging environmental safeguards or depriving local communities of their fair share. “Free market” capitalism guarantees there will be big winners, and bigger losers. The biggest loser, alas, is the earth itself. As long as our technological powers increase within a system of domination and exploitation, more catastrophes like the Gulf oil spill and the Chernobyl and Bhopal disasters are essentially guaranteed. As technology becomes more powerful, these calamities will only get more horrifying, until the rotting foundations of our social order are exposed and addressed.

Our currency is not a neutral tool, but a crystallized belief system. “Money” is an expression of ideology, the blinkered reasoning or “irrational rationality” that mortgages the present moment for a future payoff that never arrives. In the interim, the laboring multitudes grind it out, hour by hour, day by day. As we reconsider the meaning of money and the true nature of value, our society will also reconceive our approach to work; eventually, we will change our ideas of what progress means, and even our relationship to time. Once “time” is no longer “money,” we may transform the way we choose to live in time.

Many progressives and social crusaders argue that unemployment is a major social problem. They call for more jobs, “green jobs,” or guaranteed employment. This focus on employment is also a misconception based on a limited reasoning. In actual fact, it is not unemployment but work that is the problem. Deep down, nobody wants a job to occupy his or her time. We want a mission that inspires us.

As the design scientist Buckminster Fuller noted, most of the work that our society creates produces no real benefit for the earth, and in fact subtracts from it. Most of the work we do requires pointless expenditures of energy and makes more waste. Rather than having people drive to jobs and use up endless Styrofoam containers and toner cartridges, it would be cheaper — in the real terms of the vitality and thrive-ability of the earth — to subsidize them to remain in their home communities, support them to grow their own food, foster permaculture projects to increase biodiversity, and encourage them to educate themselves and their children, to make art and perform ritual if they felt so inclined, and to generally celebrate the sacred mystery of being with a minimum of interference.

Without idealizing the past, we know that many indigenous people did not “work” in the way we now understand it. Colonialists were outraged that native peoples only spent a few hours a day doing those activities necessary to support life, such as hunting and gathering, building their temporary habitats, and so on. While zealous application of the Protestant ethic brought the benefits of Western medicine and technology to the human community, it also had the unfortunate result of turning our world from a garden into a gulag.

The human-devised concept that “time is money” has created a wasteland of boredom and nihilism where many of us are forced, as the critic Lewis Mumford cunningly observed, to look into the mirror each morning and ask ourselves what part of our personality we can sell today. Given such a system, some of the most successful manipulators are those natural sociopaths who feel no compunction about thieving from the masses to line their own pockets — think the “smartest guys in the room” from the bygone Enron days; or complacent CEOs like Tony Hayward of BP, happy to attend yachting races while his company’s activities terminated entire undersea ecosystems; or all the “masters of the universe” not yet exposed, let alone brought to justice. Modern capitalism makes sociopathic behavior humdrum and routine. What else can we make of a corporation like Walmart, which takes out secret life insurance policies on its harassed and humiliated employees, utilizing statistical “quant” analysis to cash in on their aggravated death rates?

Our current economic system is institutionalized psychopathology, a parasitic virus, and its perpetuation would likely lead to the termination of the human experiment in an accelerating series of catastrophes, as climate change accelerates and the exploitation of resources and technological domination of nature intensify. The alternative is extremely difficult to imagine, until we realize it. Albert Einstein once noted that a problem is never solved by the same level of consciousness that created it, but can be superseded once a new level of consciousness is attained. We rapidly approach an exciting threshold where breakdown and breakthrough could happen almost simultaneously.

The good bad news is that we are witnessing the collapse of the current financial order, a bit like watching a multi-car collision take place in sickening slow motion. While vast amounts of intangible finance capital continue to amass, the real assets of the earth are in rapid decline, and this growing gap between the abstract and the real is bringing on an inevitable crash, one in which the delusions of finance capital can no longer be maintained. The global system has revealed itself as a massive Ponzi scheme, a debt pyramid, and we are reaching that thrilling, terrifying precipice where maintaining the fiction is no longer possible.

Nobody has ever been in this situation before. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but a few alternatives seem most plausible. Over the last decades, wealth has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. According to a recent study, fewer than seven hundred billionaires have a combined net worth of more than $2 trillion. At the same time, an estimated 2.8 billion people survive on less than $2 a day, and 1.2 billion live on less than $1. Here in the United States, fewer than 7,500 individuals out of 300 million control “almost three-quarters of the nation’s industrial (nonfinancial) assets, almost two-thirds of all banking assets, and more than three-quarters of all insurance assets,” notes political scientist Thomas Dye in Who’s Running America? Members of this small group can be found in the top tiers of the most exclusive law firms, investment banks, federal government posts, and military commands, where they can control the herd.

As the superstructure of the financial system melts down, it is unlikely that this small coterie of the world’s financial elite will choose, in a great heartfelt conversion, to democratize wealth and share resources equitably. They will, more likely, seek to grasp onto their privilege and keep their stranglehold over resources, potentially creating an increasingly authoritarian state apparatus in which the divide between the haves and have-nots becomes ever greater. As social pressure builds, draconian restrictions based on trumped-up fears of terrorists, immigrants, and other bogeymen may supplant democratic freedoms. The corporate oligarchy has spent decades mastering techniques of getting uninformed and ignorant people to act against their own best interests, and will continue to foster stupefaction and mob rule. As increasing constraints are placed on us, as security forces patrol the perimeter and drone helicopters circle overhead, as basic necessities like drinking water are sold back to us, as hyperinflation leaves only a few megabanks still standing, we will be told — over and over again — that this culture is still the greatest thing ever, that the evil others are to blame, and that it is all being done for our own good.

The other option is the one discussed, from various angles, in the essays collected in this book: the prospect that the rapidly deepening, globally systemic, economic-ecological collapse will provide the necessary ground for a mass awakening, and for the reinvention of our economic system in accord with a design science that follows nature’s operating principles. As the economist Bernard Lietaer has noted, what we require is a shift from a fragile monoculture based on one form of money to a diversified offering of many currency tools, providing a variety of ways for human beings to exchange value. The current form of Yang currency that supports masculine competition and aggression must be complemented, perhaps superseded, by Yin currencies that foster collaboration and cooperation.

More fundamental than any new currency is the shift in awareness, the change of consciousness, necessary before a truly equitable global society can emerge. This change is already occurring on many levels, some visible and some subliminal, throughout our increasingly interconnected world. We are developing a thoroughly evolutionary perspective, one that sees human cultures, relationships, and social systems as expressions of an evolution of life and of a consciousness that is perpetually ongoing. We are not passive observers of this process, but active participants. We are the coming-into-consciousness of the Gaian mind, and our actions and intentions-as individuals and communities-determine the trajectory of our future culture.

From this evolutionary viewpoint, we can see the development of capitalism over the last few hundred years as a necessary phase, but not a final endpoint, toward the inception of a planetary community. Capitalism drove technological innovation and a melding of the world’s cultures, but kept us locked in an adolescent state of mind. Communications technologies such as the internet have now linked humanity into a global tribe, able to communicate instantaneously and experience simultaneously. The intensifying economic and ecological meltdown is akin to the process that occurs when a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly: There is, first of all, a disintegration of the caterpillar form and the emergence of imaginal cells that direct the process of transmutation into a new form of life. To the old system, this appears as danger, as death, but to the new emergent form, it is necessary as an aspect of the birthing process.

We are inexorably moving toward the realization of humanity as a unified being, a singular organism, meshed with the delicate planetary ecology that nurtures us. As Bruce Lipton and Steven Bhaerman discuss in their book Spontaneous Evolution, the cells in the human body have developed to work together in perfect symbiosis, sharing resources equitably. You don’t find one cell hoarding masses of energy while another cell is left utterly deprived and gasping. If individual humans are akin to cells in a greater Gaian organism, we could similarly reach a point at which sufficient energy is provided to all, for everyone’s benefit, to ensure the effective functioning of the whole.

The essays in What Comes After Money? are thought experiments that explore our current economic predicament and reveal the path to a new economy, biospherically balanced and equitably attuned. For many people, the idea that our global capitalist system could make a quantum jump into a new systemic paradigm will initially seem impossible and outlandish. However, human culture can change with remarkable speed when necessary. Before 1989, among all the highly paid think tank analysts and political specialists, nobody predicted that the Berlin Wall would be taken down, piece by piece, through a euphoric civilian uprising, while the military stood down-that East would reunite with West without nuclear conflict or vast loss of life. This happened because, on a secret and subliminal level, the consciousness of people operating under that old oppressive order could no longer tolerate a barricade created by ideology and maintained through domination. Today, Wall Street and its “banksta” allies in foreign capitals control the movements of capital and the destiny of people and nations. Is it possible that a civil society upsurge could tear this conceptual barricade down as well? If something like this were to take place, the best-case scenario would be that we would have a new paradigm, a working operating system for exchanging goods and services using different principles, ready for rollout before social chaos could lead to the imposing of authoritarian controls.

Personally, I agree with the visionary thinker José Argüelles, who proposes that time is not money: time is art. The next phase of human development should be one of conscious evolution and co-creative collaboration, when we recognize that society is, in itself, an art project. We have the power to use our intelligence and imagination to reinvent society’s operating system so that it fulfills humanity’s highest hopes and age-old aspirations. If we can develop and construct a new economic foundation that strikes a balance between the gift exchanges of the archaic past and our modern system of swift global transactions, we might manifest a magnificent art project, an ever-evolving social sculpture, together. Such an expression of our collective human genius will benefit our kin and our descendants, and support the greater web of life. Facing a crisis unleashed by human greed and ignorance, we have an extraordinary opportunity to bring about a new-or renewed-society that is far more comfortable, harmonic, relaxed, peaceful, and humane. My hope is that this book offers a set of helpful tools for thinking through this extraordinary process, and that it inspires you to collaborate on the great co-creative experiment that lies ahead.”

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