Like social justice activists everywhere, many of us us openly mourn the destruction of community and increased social isolation under advanced industrial capitalism. As Charles Eisenstein describes in Sacred Economics,* many of us have become conditioned to rely on technology, rather than each other, to meet basic survival needs. The problem is clearly aggravated by the growing up take of social media (especially among young people) in preference to face-to-face contact.
Industrialized society has recognized too late that human beings have a powerful biological need for social interaction and interdependence. Watching this documentary, I was intrigued to learn that North American Amish communities are wary of technology, not because it’s sinful, but because they recognize its disruptive potential for their communities.
Skyrocketing land prices have forced many Amish communities to employ mechanization (combines, harvesters, milking machines, etc) to maintain the economic viability of their family farms. However most are careful to ensure that new technology doesn’t alter the collective character of farm work or preclude the continuing engagement of older family members. For example, using technology to process harvests is permissible, but not to propel farm vehicles. For this horses must be used.
Likewise nearly all Amish use pay phones for business reasons, but land lines and cellphones aren’t allowed within the home (they disrupt family life). Also the Amish are allowed to accept rides in neighbors’ cars – they’re just forbidden to own vehicles themselves.
Here the filmmakers agree with Eisenstein – collective work has always been one of the most enjoyable ways for human beings to interact. Engaging in collective farm work, such as harvesting, is a form of recreation for the Amish. Likewise when 30 or more men gather to build a house or barn, the Amish refer to it as a “frolic.”
According to the film, in 2000 there were approximately 200,000 Amish in North America in two dozen states and Ontario. Their religion originated from a Swiss Anabaptist sect formed in 1670 that subsequently split into Amish and Mennonites (who tend to be less conservative). Due to religious persecution, both groups migrated to Pennsylvania and Ohio in the 18th and 19th century. Amish parents raise their children to speak English and a Swiss dialect of German (commonly known as Pennsylvania Dutch).
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds – Bob Marley, “Redemption Song”
Bob Marley tells us to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, and it appears people are finally taking his advice. Throughout the industrial world, young people especially are refusing to be sucked in by the constant individualistic pro-consumption messaging. It turns out this ideological strait jacket (see Public Relations, Disinformation and Social Control) we all wear to some extent is incredibly superficial. Given the right circumstances, it totally unravels. The corporate elite is fully aware of the global awakening that is undermining their ability to control us ideologically. In my view, this explains their growing reliance on the military and militarized police to suppress dissent.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned from emigrating to New Zealand concerns my own indoctrination with American individualist, exceptionalist ideology. When people are exposed to different cultures, ethnicities and philosophies – through education, travel or community engagement – it doesn’t take long to realize that all the pro-capitalist jingoism that’s been rammed down our throats is nothing but a pack of lies.
Intense personal crisis can also lead people to reject their basic ideological programming. A continuing economic crisis leaving millions struggling with joblessness, homeless, depression, suicide ideation and marital breakdown has been a major force leading people to reject the pro-corporate ideology that’s been drummed into them.
Civic engagement and community building activities that Susan Clark and Woden Teachout write about in Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community and Bringing Decision Making Back Home can have a similar effect. In Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein writes of a profound inner emptiness that can never be satisfied – an emptiness stemming from the breakdown of social networks human beings have relied on for most of our 250,000 year existence. People respond to pro-consumption messaging in a desperate attempt to fill this void.
The global relocalization movement Clark and Teachout refer to directly addresses this emptiness by working to rebuild neighborhood and community networks. Here in New Plymouth, it has been totally awe inspiring to watch the natural high people experience from engaging in group effort for the first time. In case after case, the biological reward for collaborative effort far exceeds the fleeting pleasure of purchasing yet another consumer product, no matter how expensive or glamorous.
New Plymouth’s Relocalization Movement
Here in New Plymouth, a loosely knit Community Circle of 50 or so “active citizens” has taken up the challenge of rebuilding our neighborhood and community networks and civic organizations. Working through a variety of local groups, our projects range from organizing neighborhood barbecues and street parties, to simple street reclaiming projects (to reduce car traffic) to assisting specific neighborhoods in building Superhoods by setting up food, tool-sharing and cooperative childcare schemes and neighborhood crisis management plans (for emergencies such as earthquake, tsunami, floods, and flu epidemics) preparedness.
The Superhood neighborhood rebuild on Pendarves Street received financial support from New Plymouth District Council (thanks to a government grant NPDC and stakeholder groups applied for to increase walking and cycle). In another Superhood, like-minded neighbors actively recruit friends and acquaintances to purchase empty homes as they go up for sale.
Below an Australian example of neighbors working together to build a Superhood:
The title Sacred Economics sounds like a New Age treatise on spirituality. The book is actually about the end of capitalism. It offers an extremely well-researched discussion of the history of money, capitalist economics and the world wide movement for economic re-localization. By avoiding simplistic clichés about greedy corporate CEOs and amoral banksters, Eisenstein arrives at some startling conclusions. Tracing the western conception of money back to its earliest origins, he makes a strong case that money itself is responsible for rapacious growth and resource depletion, greed and the demise of community.
Money and the Loss of the Commons
The main focus of Part I is an exploration of the profound effect money has on human thinking and psychology. Part II focuses on economic relocalization and other practical steps activists can take to restore the original gift economy.
Part I begins with an analysis of the dual illusions of separateness and of scarcity. Both, Eisenstein argues, are mistaken beliefs stemming from the privatization of communally owned land. This, in turn, was an early consequence of the introduction of money.
Prior to Roman times, land, like air and water, was considered part of the commons and couldn’t be owned. Under Roman tradition, there was no way for an “individual” (a Greek invention related to the concept of money and personal wealth) to legitimately take possession of common lands. Thus the Roman aristocracy had to seize it by force, just as Europeans stole the communal lands of Native Americans, Maori and indigenous Australians.
During the many centuries our ancestors had access to communal lands for their herds and crops, they enjoyed a sense of interconnectedness and interdependency. This was lost when the wealthy began fencing it off as private property. This loss of interconnectedness has left all of us with a profound inner emptiness we experience as never having enough.
How Money Destroyed the Gift Economy
Part I also describes the gift economy that characterizes all primitive cultures. Public gift giving was the primary mechanism all early societies used to satisfy basic survival needs. As civilizations became more complex, gift exchange and barter were impractical over long distances. This led money was introduced as a common medium of exchange.
An early artifact of the introduction of money is the mistaken belief that the basic necessities of life are in short supply. This illusion underpins all western economic theory. In fact many textbooks define economics as the study of human behavior under conditions of scarcity. As Eisentein points out, this is a ludicrous notion in a world in which vast quantities of food, energy and raw materials go to waste.
The Origin of Greed
Eisenstein attributes greed to this illusion of scarcity. He can see no other explanation for low income people giving away far more money, relative to income, than their rich counterparts. Rich people worry about money more and are more inclined to perceive scarcity when none exists. Einstein talks about the immense anxiety people in rich countries experience over “financial security.” No matter how much they accumulate, it’s never enough.
Debt, Usury and Perpetual Growth
Sacred Economics argues that what economists commonly refer to as growth is the expansion of scarcity into areas of life once characterized by abundance. Fresh water, which was once abundant, has become scarce following its transformation into a commodity most of us are forced to pay for.
The fractional reserve banking system, which allows bankers to loan money they create out of thin air, accentuates the pressure to convert more and more of the commons into commodities. The amount of debt created is always greater than the money supply. Current global debt ($75 trillion) is more than twice global wealth ($30 trillion). This results in constant pressure to create more goods and services to repay personal, corporate and public debt.
Growing pressure to repay debt only hastens the rate at which natural resources, such as fossil fuels, minerals, forests, fish and water, are converted to commodities. A parallel process is causing the social, cultural and spiritual commons to be dismantled. Stuff that was free throughout all human history – stories, songs, images, ideas, clever sayings – are copyrighted or trademarked to enable them to be bought and sold.
Einsenstein’s Confusion About Marxism.
The only weakness of Sacred Economics are some mistaken and contradictory assumptions Eisenstein makes about Marxism. He makes the assertion in Part I that capitalism needs to be replaced, but not in a “Marxist” way. He claims this would remove any “monetary” incentive for people to produce goods and services that are useful to the community. This seems to contradict his call for the a return to a gift economy in which people contribute to the community for intangible rewards (public recognition, status and esteem) rather than monetary reward.
Below Eisentein speaks briefly about his book.
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