I was talking on the phone to a friend about the plight of unhappily single women in New York. "They just don't give themselves the right value in the dating market," I said. "Hey, we were just talking about the banking crisis. Look how these capitalist phrases have taken over our language!" he replied. "You're right. I shouldn't use these bankrupt expressions," I agreed. We both laughed when we realized I had inadvertently repeated my mistake.
As my friend had pointed out, capitalism has colonized our words, our identities, and our minds. The habit of thinking of people, ideas, and relationships as commodities has been nearly pervasive. We are collectively guilty of extreme reification — treating the abstraction of money as if it were the only real thing. We have constructed an idol out of our own adornments — pulling our very teeth to do it — and have subjected our innate divinity to the inert form.
And then, in late 2008, American-style free market capitalism, the single dominant human system of the last century or so, underwent a bloodless, swift, and absolute coup. The king is dead. The golden calf has been melted back down into dross. This event would be even harder to believe if the exact same thing hadn't happened to capitalism's doppelganger, totalitarian socialism, just a decade before. This time, we haven't toppled any walls or statues, but a set of powerful illusions has fallen nevertheless. The crisis will take time to be fully absorbed into our culture.
What illusions sustained capitalism, and what has been the consequence? Our democratically elected leaders, with the collaboration of our thousands of business oligarchs and wealthy financiers, have refused to put our country's vast resources to use to feed the hungry, lift up the destitute, provide care to the sick, or protect the planet from degradation, even now that it's widely acknowledged that the future of the species is at stake. The argument was always that "the market," with its unique capacity to produce "economic growth," was too sacrosanct to be subject to the "distortions" of government intervention whether in the form of taxes or regulation. No human need or desire was deemed as important as the interests of the market, not the survival of innocent children and not the health of the air we breathe.
But when the market itself was in danger of collapse, Congress acted within days. The costs imposed without referendum on the public to attempt to salvage our financial institutions dwarfs the size of our entire economy. This desperate rescue operation exposed market fundamentalism as just another form of false, extremist religion. When banks, financial institutions, and corporations failed, the power to respond rested with the United States government. Clearly, then, government intervention is not detrimental to the market. Government intervention makes the market possible.
Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber writes about the history of systems of value within different cultures. In the book Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, he summarizes the views of Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi thus:
"The state and its coercive powers have everything to do with the creation of what we now know as the market' – based as it is on institutions such as private property, national currencies, legal contracts, credit markets…'Market behavior' would be impossible without police."
Legal scholar Cass Sunstein makes a related point in his book The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever. He points out that our Constitution happens to guarantee the right to the abstraction of private property, but not the right to the necessities of life such as food, clothing or shelter. That means that the police are empowered to cast out someone who is hiding from the rain, if the roof they are huddling under happens to technically "belong" to someone else. The choice to defend one principle over the other is not always in line with our acknowledged moral values, as in the case of the starving man who steals a loaf of bread. (In the time of the New Deal, Sunstein argues, FDR identified "Freedom from Want" as a new American right, and created new social institutions to try to protect it, but failed to enshrine it in the Constitution-thus, an unfinished revolution.)
The relationship between markets and government coercion may be felt most keenly when it comes to the institution of debt. Graeber points out the inextricable historical link between debt, violence, and enslavement. In eighth-century Germanic law, the concept of "weregild" replaced the older, Biblical idea of "an eye for an eye." Weregild translates as man (were, as in werewolf) + gold (gild). Weregild was the substitution of a fixed sum of money or some other substance of value to compensate for a death, whether murder or accidental. On the one hand, the payment of blood money was a moral advance because it stopped a cycle of violence. On the other hand, it was a step down the path of reducing a human life to a sum of money and an exchange delineated and enforced by courts and governments. Besides blood debts, some of the earliest debts were also calculated as terms of indentured servitude. And everywhere and always debt has tended to be wielded by the rich and powerful over the poor and powerless, from the "company store" at a mining camp on America's frontier, to the payday lending and pawnshops that fill low-income neighborhoods today, to the massive debts imposed as "aid" on the world's poorest countries by the International Monetary Fund.
It's no coincidence that the enormous increase in debt, the most coercive and oppressive of market institutions, caused this financial crisis. The amount of consumer debt doubled over the last decade between 1997 and 2007. For those who wanted to participate in the so-called American dream-a house, a car, a college education for one's children, and an ever-increasing array of material comforts-the ubiquitous result was a pile of student loan, credit card, and mortgage debt. This house of cards collapsed when people who had higher and higher debt and flat incomes could no longer keep up the payments.
Indebted people tend to be submissive and restricted in their choices, not strong and free citizens. Soon after the financial crisis, Graeber wrote: "What is debt, after all, but imaginary money whose value can only be realized in the future: future profits, the proceeds of the exploitation of workers not yet born. Finance capital in turn is the buying and selling of these imaginary future profits… Freedom has become the right to share in the proceeds of one's own permanent enslavement."
But I believe freedom is not so fragile or limited as all that. The state, like the market, is nothing more than a human creation. And as human creations, they ought to be within our collective power to transform them. The bursting of the debt bubble has provided a once-in-a-lifetime opening to begin right now.
Consider the recent interventions by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department. While the government has taken action, the government is not the final authority. By what mechanism is the US government able to set interest rates ands control the money supply? Because it issues Treasury bonds backed with the "full faith and credit" of the US government. What backs that full faith and credit? To put it another way, why do buyers of Treasury bonds believe that they'll get their money back within 10, 20, or 50 years? Because of the long-term social stability of our nation, as partially guaranteed by our powerful military. And who's to say that our military will remain powerful and our nation stable? To the extent that we do believe it, this is ensured in turn by the continuing faithful contributions of the US taxpayer — generations of average people working for a living and cooperating with their obligations. Our time, the connections holding together the American community — it is not an exaggeration to say our love is what ultimately backs up the greenback.
Over the long term, human relationships ultimately control the market, and over the short term, human emotions do the same thing. The other night a college friend of mine was in town for business, so I invited her to stop by for dinner. Our jaws dropped when she revealed that since I had last seen her almost a year ago, she had gone from doing international aid work in Afghanistan to working as the special assistant to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. She told us that as she sat in meetings with the Nobel Prize winners and the financial mandarins, the foremost factor in the minds of the elite group managing America's way out of the financial crisis is nothing less than the esoteric phenomenon of collective consciousness. "The most important thing is to avoid a market panic," she said. "It's all about the state of people's minds" — captured in phrases like "consumer confidence."
So, even in the world's most developed and sophisticated market economy, it is ultimately human emotions and relationships that hold sway, not some abstract coercive power of the state. Markets exist because of people, not the other way around; the economy exists to fulfill human needs and serve human desires. This may be a truism, but we don't act as if we really believe it. When we put the sanctity of "the free market" ahead of human freedom and social relations, as we can see everywhere we look, we're falling prey to a fallacy. The same failing happens in our personal lives when we act more directly and more often as consumers or producers than as citizens and family members, or when like the woman on the dating "market," we submit ourselves and others to commodification.
So now that the abject and pathetic nature of the commodification fallacy has been conclusively demonstrated, it is up to us as the participants in, fools of, and creators of this ongoing illusion to carefully examine our words and our actions for signs of error, to try to make whole what has been broken, and to embark on a new way of living.
Here are three contemporary models for how to do that:
In Judaism, this process is prescribed annually and is called teshuvah — translated as repentance, it literally means return, as to a native state of wholeness and holiness.
In the addiction recovery movement, four of the famous twelve steps consist in performing a "searching and fearless moral inventory" and in making amends to those we have wronged. And for nations that have undergone a severe collective trauma such as civil war, apartheid, or genocide, a truth and reconciliation commission attempts to accomplish a similar task by drawing testimony from the oppressors and the oppressed.
What would truth, reconciliation, repentance, and amends look like for the market system? First of all, it is incumbent upon each of us to look within our own words and actions. I can't blame an outside force such as "the corporations" or "the bankers" when I act greedy or when I objectify another human being with a glance or a word. We have to hold each other and ourselves accountable.
Second, it is appropriate for us all to engage in mourning and symbolic expressions of regret for the degree to which we have allowed the market to usurp our humanity. The "Homo economicus" model of human behavior is false and limited. Whether we are working, borrowing, buying, or selling, we are also thinking, breathing, loving, and hating. When we do things just for the money we feel sick and greedy and fake because we are contributing to the oppressive ubiquity of the market.
Finally, now that we have been forced to recognize that the economy is a human creation, we should be reempowered and freed to imagine an alternative to the oppression of market fundamentalism-to remake a system that serves humanity.
To do so, we could look outside mainstream Western culture at the way other societies and subcultures are organized. In Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value Graeber writes: "In most societies, [market] institutions did not exist…one has to…examine the actual process through which the society provides itself with food, shelter, and other material goods, bearing in mind that this process is entirely embedded in society and not a sphere of activity that can be distinguished from, say, politics, kinship, or religion."
A famous example of a society without a market is the potlatch cultures of the native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. To simplify, say there are two clans. One fishes on the seashore and one hunts inland. When the fish are running, the first clan catches more than it can eat, and feasts the second. When the buffalo are running, the second clan returns the favor. In this way, both clans eat year round, strengthen their social ties, celebrate, worship, and make peace. Redistribution of resources happens across time and across social hierarchies as well. For chieftains, skilled hunters, and anyone who manages to accumulate excess, the best way to raise their social standing in a potlatch society is to share their wealth and display generosity. This way, everyone shares and everyone eats without the need for a formal market or redistributive taxation.
If you need a less exoticized example of an alternative economy than a Native American tribe, consider the "reputation economies" of the Internet. Wikipedia, YouTube, and open-source software projects like Mozilla are valuable common resources. The platform-servers for storage and networks for transmission-must be subsidized by advertising or donations. But the highly valuable content is created, sustained, and used by people for free. Why do we do it? The phrase "reputation economy" suggests that we do it to raise our social standing, but really it's more than that. I do it and I think other people do too because it feels good to create, to connect, to make the world a better place, and to be recognized for doing so.
So to make amends in the wake of the financial crisis, the path is toward healing the separation between our "economics" and our politics, our morality, our friendships, our earth, our family, and our spirituality. Rather than attempt to destroy or abolish the formal market, we can enrich it by bringing more of ourselves to it. We could think in terms of creating alternative forms of exchange and integrating our other human values along with economic value-putting our money where our heart is. For example, you can look for work that expresses your creativity or makes the world a better place. Even if your job is less than ideal, most people can still find opportunities to express their highest values at work like honesty, integrity, and kindness. You can consume mindfully–buy well-crafted, meaningful objects that connect you to other people, to the earth, and to your local community. You can reduce your consumption in order to avoid the perpetuation of enslavement in the form of debt. You can invest your money in socially responsible businesses and projects that help society. You can attempt to fulfill more of your material needs outside the formal market and thus reduce its impact on your life, by salvaging, thrifting, creating, swapping, or otherwise reducing waste, improving creativity, and strengthening social ties. Like the potlatch societies, you can practice giving away money, goods, and time to those more needy, in order to demonstrate and manifest abundance.
And, we all can take political action to transform some of the government rules of the market game. The current world recession won't lift by resuming the path of endless growth and mounting debt. A profound global reorganization has to take place so that we put a fair value on the natural resources that underlie our unprecedented prosperity. The leap toward a sustainable economy will be realized when each of us wakes up to the reality that you are the economy, and the economy is you.
Image by photociel, courtesy of Creative Commons license.