Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Engaging a More Intimate Economy

In its highest expression and use, money is a tool of
connection, and its exchange generates relationship—
the invisible infrastructure of culture

The design of money and the concept of time are primary organizing principles of society. Individual understanding and collective agreements regarding these methods of coordination are the material of social order. Indeed, human energy is harnessed and directed through the circulation of money and the synchronization of time.

Swimming in this proverbial sea of money and time, many people are experiencing difficulty in becoming aware of the consequences of the “contaminated water,” even when saturated by the effects. The modern perception of time and money is that they are separate from the natural cycles. In this reductionistic view, the world is a machine, with time measured and divided by minutes and hours, dollars and cents. This arbitrary delineation of money and time reduces them to a commodity that we either do or don’t have. This predominant relationship with money and time reinforces and perpetuates a fundamental disconnection from our felt value. Consequently, much of society experiences fear and related emotions such as anxiety, shame, anger, and grief. The fear and secrecy surrounding money enables a culture of control. While a dominant few control the majority of global resources, and the monetary system is designed to continue this accumulation of wealth, could money be one of the many ways in which the value we claim within is reflected and attracted to us?

I believe a radically different economy is currently emerging, one informed by indigenous cultures’ concepts of time and money, woven on the loom of a more intimate society. This transformation includes healing the suffering that has come from identifying with a painful separation, the mythical fall from Eden. Author Charles Eisenstein also believes a more beautiful world is possible, and he paints an eloquent portrait of civilization through a unique lens—the evolution of the sense of self—in his book The Ascent of Humanity: The Age of Separation, the Age of Reunion, and the Convergence of Crises That Is Birthing the Transition (the full text is available online at www.ascentofhumanity.com). Eisenstein’s work explores separation, “its origins, its evolution, its ideology, its effects, its consummation and resolution, and its cosmic purpose.” He provides many perspectives from which to view this profound evolution, including science, language, philosophy, and economics.

Eisenstein, a Yale graduate who has taught at Penn State, says “In a gift community, everyone is fully capable of giving and receiving. We orient toward ‘What can I give’ in any situation, even as we open to fully and fearlessly receive. Then, a miracle happens: something greater than any of us creates itself through our community, drawing on our gifts and gifting, and expanding us in return. We easily and naturally ‘live the give-away’ because that is who we have become.”

As a control tactic, both time and money in their modern invention are abstracted from nature, forging a wedge of separation. Native cultures, on the other hand, have lived in the circularity of both money and time. Across the globe these cultures lived in cyclical and nonlinear time, like moving in natural rhythms of 13 moon cycles for every rotation around the sun (after the introduction of the Gregorian calendar and the mechanical clock, society became radically altered).

Indigenous cultures also understood that true wealth comes from circulation—not accumulation. The natives of the Pacific Northwest lived a gift economy, as illustrated by their potlatch ceremony. The word “potlatch” means “to give away” or “a gift,” and the primary purpose of a potlatch is redistribution and reciprocity of wealth. Family status increases not by who has the most resources, but by who distributes the most resources. In their society, giving generously to the entire village was valued more than hoarding things for a discrete and separate self. Individuals acted in service to the greater whole, because that was their source of survival and identity. The potlatch ceremony was viewed as wasteful and unproductive by the European colonizers and was outlawed in 1885 in the United States and Canada.

In its highest expression and use, money is a tool of connection. Exchange generates relationship—the invisible infrastructure of culture. It is fascinating, then, that the current design of money has amplified humanity’s sense of separation. Clearly, the rules of the modern economic system were conceived by minds sourcing from this sense of, belief in, and experience of, separation. The pain of this separation can be felt in many ways, such as the gap between rich and poor, and the depletion of natural resources for financial gain. Feelings of shame, inadequacy, distrust and unworthiness enshroud our relationship with money in a veil of secrecy.

This apparent separation—from Source, the Earth, and each other—is evident in the story of scarcity, the myth that there is never enough. So often we hear that there’s just not enough time or money. So many feel they can’t afford to enjoy life, to savor the pleasures of this garden called Earth. Hung over from a credit binge, humanity stumbles out of a slumber to find the world on fire and the house foreclosed. An addiction to cheap energy and debt has systematically dismantled the essence of wealth as expressed in an intimate economy. Marketeers have manufactured the desire to consume by convincing people that they are not enough, something is missing in their life. A focus on this lack and future obligations distract people from becoming the creative power in the here and now.

Modern economic man is driven by efficiency and growth, with a neuroses resulting, in large part, from the compound interest charged on debt-based fiat currency. Today, all national currencies are fiat, which comes from the Latin term meaning “by decree.” The dollar’s usefulness results not from any intrinsic value or guarantee that it can be converted into gold, but from a government’s order (fiat) that it must be accepted as a means of payment. The relentless growth of compound interest on the debt that all national currency represents has serious consequences. Eisenstein writes, “Interest drives a relentless anxiety by demanding always more, propelling the endless conversion of all wealth into financial capital.”

A modern quest for efficiency overshadows the joy of creating beauty through craftsmanship. Yet in the Pacific island nation of Bali, art flourishes as a way of life. The exchange of a local currency based on time allows for the practical valuing of creative expressions. Their coin has been used for most of the last 1100 years. After the Dutch conquest in the 1900s, the Balinese had a dual currency system that included the national Dutch guilder. Their culture was intimately connected with their coin, especially as used in spiritual rituals. Exchange weaves elements of their culture together, contributing to sustained vitality.

In contrast, the commodification of nearly every aspect of life in this country, including time and relationships, results in a painful loneliness and a perceived lack of safety. Modern laws of property and ownership reinforce the misconception that money can buy security, but why then do so many people feel unsafe in a world of vast material wealth? Eisenstein writes, “Money, the great anonymyzing power, has even deeper roots in our sense of self. The long transition from gifts to money, from giving to keeping, is written into our very self-definition. Together, our self-definition and its monetary manifestation constitute a pattern that is rapidly propelling us toward social and environmental calamity.”

Modern economics has emphasized efficiency and specialization for greater growth as the goals of activity. But what are the consequences of this narrow focus? Eisenstein writes, “When all functions are standardized and narrowly defined, it does not matter too much who fills them. We can always pay someone else to do it … We suffer an omnipresent anxiety and insecurity borne of the fact that the world can get along just fine without us. We are easily replaced … The monetized life is a lonely life because it reduces people in our lives to anonymous occupiers of roles.”

In the face of great challenge, many humans are investing their incredible creativity and ingenuity into a new economy of life. Unemployment seems an anomaly when so much meaningful work needs to be done. Nearly 10% of the American workforce is now unemployed, and in some states underemployment, which measures people who would like to be working more hours or who are overqualified for their position, is as high as 15%. These numbers are expected to grow, as many older people can’t afford to be retired.

So, while at least 25% of this nation’s workforce is underutilized, there is an increasing need for quality health care, education, environmental restoration and housing. What’s missing? Oh … right … the money. The myth of scarcity has crippled our human capacity. Eisenstein compares this disconnection to being in an orchard with ripe apple trees, and yet you have a pile of apples in a basket that you are defending from others. Vast amounts of energy focus on defining ownership, and building legal and physical walls of separation to protect what is “mine.” This sense of separation creates an emphasis on “having.” In the English language, “have” is one of the most common verbs, with about 20 definitions in the dictionary. We “have” sex, financial security, time, a friend, or an experience. More than semantics, this sense of ownership is a fundamental construct. Notice all the ways you regularly use “have,” then see how you feel as you replace it with “share” or “give.” Indeed, one’s capacity to truly receive in a nourishing way is expressed in the ability to live generously. In this cycle, one is more intimately connected as a valuable part of a living, thriving field.

Currency expert Bernard Lietaer believes there is a need for a currency that is both “yin” and “yang,” operating simultaneously yet fulfilling different purposes. National currency is yang, it encourages competition, rewards “having” and “doing,” is based on logic and linear thought, and relies on a central authority. Gifting and complementary currencies are yin, based on mutual trust, and are used within a community to encourage cooperation. There are many creative examples of the gift economy that can be found through an Internet search. One model in the health field can be found at www.karmaclinic.org/.

When indigenous cultures lived in a gift economy they were intimately connected to the people and land on which they relied for material sustenance. This is in stark contrast to modern Western society, which creates a vast disparity between cost and price. Most tend to be concerned with price, while oblivious to cost. Prices have not reflected the cost of perpetual growth on the earth and the entire biotic community. Fear of scarcity has resulted in a myopic obsession with the bank account, with each person an island unto themselves.
A bold shift into honoring the sacred feminine may ignite a more intimate economy. The feminine way of fostering and giving, rather than prizing and taking, is rooted in trust, generosity and gratitude. Complementary currency systems, which are emerging around the world, encourage these qualities in their design. When individuals cultivate and share their unique gifts, the collective becomes stronger and healthier. From an authentic expression of vulnerability and passion individuals celebrate both their unity and their uniqueness. Human capacity is revealed in the exploration, awakening and expression of our lives. This is how we can begin to embrace an intimate economy.

Charles Eisenstein will be returning to Ashland, Oregon in October to share his insight on the gift economy and will co-facilitate “The Gift Community” at Buckhorn Springs, September 9-13. For information, contact Will Wilkinson at Hidden Springs Wellness Center, (541) 488-8858 orwill@hiddenspringswellness.com.
Crystal Arnold earned a BS in international economics from Southern Oregon University and is the creator of Money Metamorphosis. She offers workshops, telecourses and financial coaching for individuals and couples and is dedicated to creating a resilient local economy and a complementary currency. Contact her at (541) 227-3577or crystalconsults@gmail.com. You may sign up for her blog at http://moneymetamorphosis.us