NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Sacred Economics: Chapter 5, “The Corpse of the Commons” (Pt. 6)


The following is the sixth installment from Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition, available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. You can read the Introduction here, and visit the Sacred Economics homepage here


We cry shame on the feudal baron who forbade the peasant
to turn a clod of earth unless he surrendered to his lord a fourth of his crop.
We call those the barbarous times. But if the forms have changed, the relations
have remained the same, and the worker is forced, under the name of free
contract, to accept feudal obligations. For, turn where he will, he can find no
better conditions. Everything has become private property, and he must accept,
or die of hunger.
–Peter Kropotkin

At the foundation of every great fortune lies a great
–Leo Tolstoy


Despite land's obvious independence of human effort for its
existence, land is not so different from any other kind of property. Let us
first consider material property — anything made of metal, wood, plastic, plants
or animals, minerals, and so on. Are these anything other than pieces of the
earth, altered through the application of human effort? The distinction between
land and improvements thereupon — the distinction between that which already
exists and that which human effort creates — is no more or less valid for land
than for any other material good. All that we use and all that we own consists
of modified bits of earth. Together they are "natural capital" — the wealth and goodness
that nature has bequeathed upon us. Originally none of it was property; it came
into that realm as technology lengthened our grasp and the mentality of
separation intensified our will to own. Today, forms of natural capital that we
barely knew existed have become property: the electromagnetic spectrum,
sequences of DNA, and, indirectly, ecological diversity and the earth's
capacity to absorb industrial waste.1

Whether it has been
made into a direct subject of property, as in land, oil, and trees, or whether
it is still a commons that we draw on to create other property, such as the
open sea, the original Great Commons has been sold off: converted first into
property and then into money. It is this final step that confirms that
something has indeed completed its metamorphosis into property. To be able to
freely buy and sell something means that it has been dissociated from its
original matrix of relationships; in other words, that it has become
"alienable." That is why money has become a proxy for land and all other
property, and why charging rental (interest) for its use bears the same effects
and partakes of the same ancient injustice as does charging rent on land.


Cultural and
Spiritual Capital

Natural capital is one of four broad categories of the
commonwealth that also comprises social, cultural, and spiritual capital. Each
consists of things that were once free, part of self-sufficiency or the gift
economy, that we now pay for. The robbery then is not from mother earth, but
from mother culture.

The most familiar of
these other forms of capital in the economic discourse is cultural capital,
which goes by the term intellectual
In former times, the vast fund of stories, ideas, songs, artistic
motifs, images, and technical inventions formed a commons that everyone could
draw upon for pleasure and productivity, or incorporate into yet other
innovations. In the Middle Ages, minstrels would listen to each other's songs
and borrow new tunes that they liked, modify them, and circulate them back into
the commons of music. Today artists and their corporate sponsors scramble to
copyright and protect each new creation, and vigorously prosecute anyone who
tries to incorporate those songs into their own. The same happens in every
creative sphere.2

The moral
justification for intellectual property is, again, "If I am my own, and my
labor power belongs to me, then what I make is mine." But even granting the
premise that "I am my own," the implicit assumption that artistic and
intellectual creations arise ex nihilo from the mind of the creator,
independent of cultural context, is absurd. Any intellectual creation
(including this book) draws on bits and pieces of the sea of culture around us,
and from the fund of images, melodies, and ideas that are deeply imprinted upon
the human psyche, or perhaps even innate to it. As Lewis Mumford puts it, "A
patent is a device that enables one man to claim special financial rewards for
being the last link in the complicated social process that produced the
invention."3 The same
is true of songs, stories, and all other cultural innovations. By making them
private property, we are walling off something that is not ours. We are
stealing from the cultural commons. And because, like land, pieces of the
cultural commons are themselves productive of continued wealth, this theft is
an ongoing crime that contributes to the divide between the haves and the
have-nots, the owners and the renters, the creditors and the debtors. The
Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin made this general point eloquently:

Every machine has had the same
history — a long record of sleepless nights and of poverty, of disillusions and
of joys, of partial improvements discovered by several generations of nameless
workers, who have added to the original invention these little nothings,
without which the most fertile idea would remain fruitless. More than that:
every new invention is a synthesis, the resultant of innumerable inventions
which have preceded it in the vast field of mechanics and industry.

and industry, knowledge and application, discovery and practical realization
leading to new discoveries, cunning of brain and of hand, toil of mind and
muscle-all work together. Each discovery, each advance, each increase in the
sum of human riches, owes its being to the physical and mental travail of the
past and the present.

what right then can any one whatever appropriate the least morsel of this
immense whole and say — This is mine, not yours?4


Such considerations inform my desire to make my books freely
available online and to forgo some of the normal copyrights. I could not have
written this book outside a vast organic matrix of ideas, a commonwealth of
cultural capital that I cannot rightfully enclose.5

Spiritual capital is more subtle.
It refers to our mental and sensuous capacities, for example, the ability to
concentrate, to create worlds of the imagination, and to derive pleasure from
experiencing life. When I was young, in the very last days before television
and video games came to dominate American childhood, we created our own worlds
with intricate story lines, practicing the psychic technologies that adults can
use to fashion their lives and their collective reality: forming a vision,
telling a story around that vision that assigns meanings and roles, playing out
those roles, and so on. Today, those worlds of the imagination come
prefabricated from TV studios and software companies, and children wander
through cheap, gaudy, often violent worlds created by distant strangers. These
come with prefabricated images as well, and the ability to form their own
images (we call this ability imagination)
atrophies. Unable to envision a new world, the child grows up accustomed to
accepting whatever reality is handed her.6 Could this, perhaps, be contributing to the political
passivity of the American public?

Another depletion of
spiritual capital comes via the intense sensory stimulation of electronic
media. Modern action films, for instance, are so fast-paced, so loud, so
grossly stimulating, that older movies seem boring in comparison, not to
mention books or the world of nature. Despite my best efforts to limit their
exposure to modern excesses, my children can barely stand to watch any film
made before 1975. Once habituated to intense stimulation, in its absence we get
the withdrawal symptom we call boredom. We become dependent, and therefore must
pay to acquire something that was once available simply by virtue of being
alive. A baby or a hunter-gatherer will be fascinated by the slow processes of
nature: a twig floating on the water, a bee visiting a flower, and other things
that are beyond the anemic attentiveness of modern adults. Just as the Roman coloni
had to pay to use the land they needed to survive, so also must most people
today pay the owners of the processes, media, and capital necessary to create
the extreme sensory stimulation that they need to feel alive.

It may not be readily
apparent that spiritual capital constitutes a commons. What has really been
appropriated here is a locus of attention. The capabilities of the human mind
that I call spiritual capital do not exist in isolation; it is our upbringing,
our nurture, our cultural surroundings that foster and direct them. Our ability
to imagine and to obtain sensory fulfillment is to a great degree a collective
ability, one today that we can no longer exercise from the freely available
sources of mind and nature, but must purchase from their new owners.

The collective
attention of the human race is a commons like the land or the air. Like them,
it is a raw material of human creativity. To make a tool, to do any work, to do
anything at all requires that one place attention on that task rather than on
some other. The ubiquity of advertising and media in our society is a
co-optation of the collective human attention, and a depletion of our divine
bequest. On the road, everywhere my eyes turn, there is a billboard. On the
subway, on the internet, on the street, commercial messages reach out to
"capture" our attention. They infiltrate our very thoughts, our narratives, our
inner dialog, and via these, our emotions, desires, and beliefs, turning all
toward the making of product and profit. Our attention is hardly our own
anymore, so easily do the powers of politics and commerce manipulate it.

After it has been so
long manipulated, chopped up, habituated to intense stimuli, and jerked around
from one lurid but empty object to another, our attention is so fragmented we
cannot sustain it long enough to create anything independent of the programs
that surround us. We lose our capacity to sustain thought, understand nuance,
and put ourselves in another person's shoes. Susceptible to any simplistic
narrative with immediate emotional appeal, we are easy targets not just for
advertising, but for propaganda, demagoguery, and fascism. In various ways, all
of these serve the money power.


The Strip-Mining of

The most important type of capital for purposes of this
discussion is social capital. Social capital refers primarily to relationships
and skills, the "services" that people once provided for themselves and each
other in a gift economy, such as cooking, child care, health care, hospitality,
entertainment, advice, and the growing of food, making of clothes, and building
of houses. As recently as one or two generations ago, many of these functions
were far less commoditized than they are today. When I was a child, most people
I knew seldom ate at restaurants, and neighbors took care of each other's
children after school. Technology has been instrumental in bringing human
relationships into the realm of "services," just as it has brought deeper and
more obscure pieces of the earth into the realm of goods. For example, the
technology of the phonograph and radio helped turn music from something people
made for themselves into something they paid for. Storage and transportation
technologies have done the same for food processing. In general, the fine
division of labor that accompanies technology has made us dependent on
strangers for most of the things we use, and makes it unlikely that our
neighbors depend on us for anything we produce. Economic ties thus become
divorced from social ties, leaving us with little to offer our neighbors and
little occasion to know them.

monetization of social capital is the strip-mining of community. It should not
be surprising that money is deeply implicated in the disintegration of
community, because money is the epitome of the impersonal. Convert two distinct
forests into money, and they become the same. Applied to cultures, the same
principle is fast creating a global monoculture where every service is a paid
service. When money mediates all our relationships, we too lose our uniqueness
to become a standard consumer of standard goods and services, and a standard
functionary performing other services. No personal economic relationships are
important because we can always "pay someone else to do it." No wonder, strive
as we might, we find it so hard to create community. No wonder we feel so
insecure, so replaceable. It is all because of the conversion, driven, as we
shall see, by interest, of the unique and sacred into the monetized and
generic. In The Ascent of Humanity I wrote,

"We don't really need each other." … What better
description could there be of the loss of community in today's world? We don't
really need each other. We don't need to know the person who grows, ships, and
processes our food, makes our clothing, builds our house, creates our music,
makes or fixes our car; we don't even need to know the person who takes care of
our babies while we are at work. We are dependent on the role, but only
incidentally on the person fulfilling that role. Whatever it is, we can just
pay someone to do it (or pay someone else to do it) as long as we have money.
And how do we get money? By performing some other specialized role that, more
likely than not, amounts to someone paying us to do something for them…

necessities of life have been given over to specialists, leaving us with
nothing meaningful to do (outside our own area of expertise) but to entertain
ourselves. Meanwhile, whatever functions of daily living that remain to us are
mostly solitary functions: driving places, buying things, paying bills, cooking
convenience foods, doing housework. None of these demand the help of neighbors,
relatives, or friends. We wish we were closer to our neighbors; we think of
ourselves as friendly people who would gladly help them. But there is little to
help them with. In our house-boxes, we are self-sufficient. Or rather, we are self-sufficient
in relation to the people we know but dependent as never before on total
strangers living thousands of miles away.

commoditization of social relationships leaves us with nothing to do together
but to consume. Joint consumption does nothing to build community because it
requires no gifts. I think the oft-lamented vacuity of most social gatherings
arises from the inchoate knowledge, "I don't need you." I don't need you to
help me consume food, drink, drugs, or entertainment. Consumption calls upon no
one's gifts, calls forth none of anyone's true being. Community and intimacy
cannot come from joint consumption, but only from giving and cocreativity.

libertarians invoke the sanctity of private property, they unintentionally
create a need for the very Big Government they so despise. For in the absence
of community bonds, the atomized individuals that remain depend on remote
authority — a legally constituted state-for many of the social functions that
community structures once fulfilled: security, dispute resolution, and the
allocation of collective social capital. The propertization and privatization
of the economic realm leaves us, to coin a phrase, helplessly
independent-independent of anyone we know, and dependent on impersonal, coercive
institutions that govern from afar.

I ask people what is missing most from their lives, the most common answer is
"community." But how can we build community when its building blocks-the things
we do for each other-have all been converted into money? Community is woven
from gifts. Unlike money or barter transactions, in which there are no
obligations remaining after the transaction, gifts always imply future gifts.
When we receive, we owe; gratitude is the knowledge of having received and the
desire to give in turn. But what is there now to give? Not the necessities of
life, not food, shelter, or clothing, not entertainment, not stories, not
health care: everyone buys these. Hence the urge to get away from it all, to
return to a more self-sufficient life where we build our own houses and grow
our own food and make our own clothes, in community. Yet while there is value
in this movement, I doubt that many people will start doing things the hard way
again just in order to have community. There is another solution besides
reversing the specialization of labor and the machine-based efficiency of the
modern age, and it springs from the fact that money does not meet many of our
needs at all. Very important needs go unmet today, and money, because of its
impersonal nature, is incapable of meeting them. The community of the future
will arise from the needs that money inherently cannot meet.

You can see now why I
call money "the corpse of the commons." The conversion of natural, cultural,
social, and spiritual capital into money is the fulfillment of its power,
described by Richard Seaford, to homogenize all that it touches. "In reducing
individuality to homogeneous impersonality," he writes, "the power of money
resembles the power of death."7
Indeed, when every forest has been converted into board feet, when every
ecosystem has been paved over, when every human relationship has been replaced
by a service, the very processes of planetary and social life will cease. All
that will be left is cold, dead money, as forewarned by the myth of King Midas
so many centuries ago. We will be dead-but very, very rich.


The Creation
of Needs

Economists would say that such things as phonographs and
bulldozers and the rest of technology have enriched us, creating new goods and
services that did not exist before. On a deep level, though, the human needs
these things meet are nothing new. They just meet them in a different way-a way
that we must now pay for.

telecommunications. Human beings do not have an abstract need for long-distance
communication. We have a need to stay in contact with people with whom we share
emotional and economic ties. In past times, these people were usually close by.
A hunter-gatherer or fourteenth-century Russian peasant would have had little use
for a telephone. Telephones began to meet a need only when other developments
in technology and culture spread human beings farther apart and splintered
extended families and local communities. So the basic need they meet is not
something new under the sun.

Consider another
technological offering, one to which my children, to my great consternation,
seem irresistibly attracted: massively multiplayer online fantasy role-playing
games. The need these meet is not anything new either. Preteens and teenagers have
a strong need to go exploring, to have adventures, and to establish an identity
via interactions with peers that reference this exploration and adventure. In
past times, this happened in the actual outdoors. When I was a child we had
nothing like the freedom of generations before us, as you might read about in Tom
, yet still my friends and
I would sometimes wander for miles, to a creek or an unused quarry pit, an
undeveloped hilltop, the train tracks. Today, one rarely finds groups of kids
roaming around, when every bit of land is fenced and marked with no-trespassing
signs, when society is obsessed with safety, and when children are
overscheduled and driven to perform. Technology and culture have robbed
children of something they deeply need-and then, in the form of video games,
sold it back to them.

I remember the day I
realized what was happening. I happened to watch an episode of the Pokémon
television show, which is basically about three kids roaming around having
magical adventures. These on-screen, fictitious, trademarked characters were
having the magical adventures that real children once had but now must pay (via
advertising) for the privilege of watching. As a result, GDP has grown. New
"goods and services" (by definition, things that are part of the money economy)
have been created, replacing functions that were once fulfilled for free.

A little reflection
reveals that nearly every good and service available today meets needs that
were once met for free. What about medical technology? Compare our own poor
health with the marvelous health enjoyed by hunter-gatherers and primitive
agriculturalists, and it is clear that we are purchasing, at great expense, our
ability to physically function. Child care? Food processing? Transportation? The
textile industry? Space does not permit me to analyze each of these for what
necessities have been stolen and sold back to us. I will offer one more piece
of evidence for my view: if the growth of money really were driving the
technological and cultural meeting of new needs, then wouldn't we be more
fulfilled than any humans before us?

Are people happier
now, more fulfilled, for having films rather than tribal storytellers, MP3
players rather than gatherings around the piano? Are we happier eating mass-produced
food rather than that from a neighbor's field or our own garden? Are people
happier living in prefab units or McMansions than they were in old New England
stone farmhouses or wigwams? Are we happier? Has any new need been met?

Even if it has not, I won't
discard the entire corpus of technology, despite all the ruin it has wrought
upon nature and humanity. In fact, the achievements of science and technology
do meet important needs, needs that are key drivers of sacred economics. They
include the need to explore, to play, to know, and to create what we in the New
Economy movement call "really cool stuff." In a sacred economy, science,
technology, and the specialization of labor that goes along with them will
continue to be among the agents for the meeting of these needs. We can see this
higher purpose of science and technology already, like a recessive gene that
crops up irrepressibly in spite of its endless commercialization. It is in the
heart of every true scientist and inventor: the spirit of wonder, excitement,
and the thrill of novelty. Every institution of the old world has a counterpart
in the new, the same note at another octave. We are not calling for a
revolution that will eradicate the old and create the new from scratch. That
kind of revolution has been tried before, with the same results each time,
because that mentality is itself part of the old world. Sacred economics is
part of a different kind of revolution entirely, a transformation and not a
purge. In this revolution, the losers won't even realize they have lost.

Up until today, very
few of the products of our economy and technology have served the
aforementioned needs. Not only are our needs for play, exploration, and wonder
underfulfilled, but great anxiety and struggle accompany even the meeting of
our physical needs. This contradicts economists' assertion that even if no new
needs have been met, technology and the division of labor allow us to meet
existing needs more efficiently. A machine, it is said, can do the work of a
thousand men; a computer can coordinate the work of a thousand machines.
Accordingly, futurists since the eighteenth century have predicted an imminent
age of leisure. That age has never arrived, and indeed has seemed in the last
thirty-five years to recede even farther into the distance. Something obviously
is not working.

One of the two primary
assumptions of economics is that human beings normally act in their rational
self-interest and that this self-interest corresponds to money. Two people will
only make an exchange (e.g., buying something for money) if it benefits both to
do so. The more exchanges that are happening, then, the more benefits are being
had. Economists therefore associate money with Benthamite "utility" — that is,
the good. That is one reason why economic growth is the unquestioned holy grail
of economic policy — when the economy grows, the world's supposed goodness level
rises. What politician wouldn't want to take credit for economic growth?

Economic logic says
that when a new good or service comes into being, the fact that someone is
willing to pay for it means that it must be to someone's benefit. In a certain
narrow sense, this is true. If I steal your car keys, it may be to your benefit
to buy them back from me. If I steal your land, it may be to your benefit to
rent it back so you can survive. But to say that money transactions are
evidence of an overall rise in utility is absurd; or rather, it assumes that
the needs they meet were originally unmet. If we are merely paying for
something once provided through self-sufficiency or the gift economy, then the
logic of economic growth is faulty. Herein lies a hidden ideological motivation
for the assumption that primitive life was, in Hobbes's words, "solitary, poor,
nasty, brutish, and short." Such a past would justify the present, which
actually bears all of Hobbes's qualities in various ways. What is life in the
Great Indoors of suburbia, if not solitary? What is life in equatorial Africa,
if not short?8 And has
any age rivaled the last century in its nastiness and brutality? Perhaps the
Hobbesian view that the past was a harsh survival struggle is an ideological
projection of our own condition.

For the economy to
grow, the realm of money-denominated goods and services must grow too. Money
must meet more and more of our needs. Gross domestic product, after all, is
defined as the sum total of the goods and services a nation produces. Only
those exchanged for money count.

If I babysit your children for free, economists don't count
it as a service or add it to GDP. It cannot be used to pay a financial debt;
nor can I go to the supermarket and say, "I watched my neighbors' kids this
morning, so please give me food." But if I open a day care center and charge
you money, I have created a "service." GDP rises and, according to economists,
society has become wealthier. I have grown the economy and raised the world's
level of goodness. "Goods" are those things you pay money for. Money = Good.
That has been the equation of our time.

The same is true if I
cut down a forest and sell the timber. While it is still standing and
inaccessible, it is not a good. It only becomes "good" when I build a logging
road, hire labor, cut it down, and transport it to a buyer. I convert a forest
to timber, a commodity, and GDP goes up. Similarly, if I create a new song and
share it for free, GDP does not go up and society is not considered wealthier,
but if I copyright it and sell it, it becomes a good. Or I can find a
traditional society that uses herbs and shamanic techniques for healing,
destroy their culture and make them dependent on pharmaceutical medicine that
they must purchase, evict them from their land so they cannot be subsistence
farmers and must buy food, and clear the land and hire them on a banana
plantation-and I have made the world richer. I have brought various functions,
relationships, and natural resources into the realm of money.

Any time someone pays
for anything she once received as a gift or did herself, the world's "goodness"
level rises. Each tree cut down and made into paper, each idea captured and
made into intellectual property, each child who uses video games instead of
creating worlds of the imagination, each human relationship turned into a paid
service, depletes a bit of the natural, cultural, spiritual, and social commons
and converts it into money.

It is true that it is
more efficient (in terms of labor-hours) for day care professionals to care for
three dozen kids than for a bunch of stay-at-home parents to do it themselves.
It is also more efficient to farm thousand-acre fields with megatractors and
chemicals than it is to raise the same amount of food on a hundred small
holdings using hand tools. But all this efficiency has neither given us more
leisure nor met any fundamentally new need. The efficiency ends up meeting the
old needs in endless, obscene elaboration, eventually reaching the extreme of
closets full of clothes and shoes that are barely worn before entering the

The limited character
of human needs presented problems from the very beginning of the industrial
era, appearing first in the textile industry. After all, how many garments does
one person really need? The solution to the looming crisis of overproduction
was to manipulate people into overfulfilling their need for clothes. Enter the
fashion industry, which, in a surprisingly conscious and cynical way,
encouraged would-be dandies to stay up with the fashions. Part of the reason
that people embraced this is because clothing occupies a special place in all
cultures, fulfilling various sacred, joyful, somber, and playful needs and
contributing greatly to the deeper need for social identity. It is as natural
to adorn our bodies as it is to spice our food. The point is that no new need
was being fulfilled. More and more production is devoted toward meeting the
same need, endlessly elaborated.

Moreover, the same
industrialization that brought the mass production of textiles also caused the
social disintegration that shattered traditional communities and made people
susceptible to the fashion industry. I described this in a somewhat broader
context in The Ascent of Humanity:

To introduce consumerism to a previously isolated culture
it is first necessary to destroy its sense of identity. Here's how: Disrupt its
networks of reciprocity by introducing consumer items from the outside. Erode
its self-esteem with glamorous images of the West. Demean its mythologies
through missionary work and scientific education. Dismantle its traditional
ways of transmitting local knowledge by introducing schooling with outside
curricula. Destroy its language by providing that schooling in English or
another national or world language. Truncate its ties to the land by importing
cheap food to make local agriculture uneconomic. Then you will have created a
people hungry for the right sneaker.

The crisis of overproduction that occurs when one need has
been generally fulfilled is resolved by exporting it onto some other need. An
equivalent way of looking at it is that one type after another of natural, social,
cultural, and spiritual commonwealth is converted into property and money. When
the social capital of clothes-making (i.e., the skills and traditions and the
means for their transmission) is turned into a commodity, and no one is making
clothes outside the money economy any more, then it is time to sell even more
clothes by destroying other identity-sustaining social structures. Identity
becomes a commodity, and clothes and other consumer items its proxy.

The social ecology of
the gift — the shared skills, customs, and social structures that meet each
other's needs — is just as rich a source of wealth, and bears just as many veins
of treasure, as do the natural ecology and the earth underlying it. The
question is, what happens when all of these forms of common capital are tapped
out? What happens when there are no more fish to turn into seafood, no more
forests to turn into paper, no more topsoil to turn into corn syrup, no longer
anything people do for each other for free?

On the face of it,
this should not be a crisis at all. Why must we keep growing? If all our needs
are met with increasing efficiency, why can't we just work less? Why has the
promised age of leisure never arrived? As we shall see, in our present money
system, it will never arrive. No new technological wonder will be enough. The
money system we have inherited will always compel us to choose growth over

One might say that
money has met one need that was truly unmet before — the need for the
human species to grow and to operate on a scale of millions or billions. Our
need for food, music, stories, medicine, and so forth may be no more satisfied
than in the Stone Age, but we can, for the first time, create things that
require the coordinated efforts of millions of specialists around the globe.
Money has facilitated the development of a metahuman organism of seven billion
cells, the collective body of the human species. It is like a signaling
molecule, coordinating the contributions of individuals and organizations
toward purposes that no smaller grouping could ever achieve. All the needs that
money has created or transferred from the personal to the standard and generic
have been part of this organismic development. Even the fashion industry has
been part of it, as a means for creating identity and a sense of belonging
extending across vast social distances.

Like a multicellular
organism, humanity as a collective being needs organs, subsystems, and the
means to coordinate them. Money, along with symbolic culture, communication
technology, education, and so forth, has been instrumental in developing these.
It has also been like a growth hormone, both stimulating growth and governing
the expression of that growth. Today, it seems, we are reaching the limits of
growth, and therefore the end of humanity's childhood. All of our organs are
fully formed; some, indeed, have outlived their usefulness and may revert to
vestigial form. We are maturing. Perhaps we are about to turn our newfound
creative power of billions towards its mature purpose. Perhaps, accordingly, we
need a different kind of money, one that continues to coordinate the vastly
complex metahuman organism but no longer compels it to grow.


The Money Power

All of the myriad forms of property today have one defining
feature in common: all of them can be bought and sold for money. All are the
equivalent of money, for whoever owns money can own any other form of capital
and the productive power that goes along with it. And each of these forms,
remember, arose from the commons, was once unowned by any person, and was
eventually stripped from the commons and made property. The same thing that
happened to land has happened to everything else and has brought the same
concentration of wealth and power in the hands of those who own it. As the early
Christian fathers, Proudhon, Marx, and George knew, it is immoral to rob
someone of his property and then make him pay you to use it. Yet that is what
happens any time you charge rent on land or interest on money. No accident,
then, that nearly all world religions impose prohibitions on usury. Someone
should not benefit from merely owning what existed before ownership, and money
today is the embodiment of all that existed before ownership, the distilled
essence of property.

However, the
anti-interest money systems I will propose and describe in this book are not
motivated by mere morality. Interest is more than just the proceeds of a crime,
more even than the ongoing income from a crime already committed. It is also
the engine of continued robbery; it is a force that compels us all, however
kind in our intentions, into willing or unwilling complicity in the
strip-mining of the earth.

In my travels, firstly
my inward journeying and then as a speaker and writer, I have oft encountered a
deep anguish and helplessness borne of the ubiquity of the world-devouring
machine and of the near-impossibility of avoiding participation in it. To give
one example among millions, people who rage against Wal-Mart still shop there,
or at other stores equally a part of the global predation chain, because they
feel they cannot afford to pay double the price or to do without. And what of
the electricity that powers my house — coal ripped out of the tops of mountains?
What of the gas that gets me places and gets deliveries to me if I go
"off-grid"? I can minimize my participation in the world-devouring machine, but
I cannot avoid it entirely. As people become aware that merely living in
society means contributing to the evils of the world, they often go through a
phase of desiring to find a completely isolated and self-sufficient intentional
community — but what good does that do, while Rome burns? So what, if you are not
contributing your little part to the pollution that is overwhelming the earth?
It proceeds apace whether you live in the forest and eat roots and berries or
in a suburb and eat food trucked in from California.9 The desire for personal
exculpation from the sins of society is a kind of fetish, akin to solar panels
on a 4,000-square-foot house.

Laudable though the
impulse may be, movements to boycott Wal-Mart or reform health care or
education or politics or anything else quickly become exercises in futility as
they run up against the money power. To make any impact at all feels like a
grueling upstream swim, and as soon as we rest, some new outrage, some new
horror sweeps us away again, some new stripping of nature, community, health,
or spirit for the sake of money.

What, exactly, is this
"money power"? It is not, as it sometimes may seem, an evil cabal of bankers controlling
the world through the Bilderberg Council, the Trilateral Commission, and other
instruments of the "Illuminati." In my travels and correspondence, I sometimes
run into people who have read books by David Icke and others that make a
persuasive case for an ancient global conspiracy dedicated to a "New World
Order," symbolized by the all-seeing eye atop the pyramid, controlling every
government and every institution, and run behind the scenes by a small, secret
coterie of power-hungry monsters who count even the Rothschilds and
Rockefellers among their puppets. I must be very naive, or very ignorant, not
to comprehend the true nature of the problem.

While I confess to
being naive, I am not ignorant. I have read much of this material and come away
unsatisfied. While it is clear that there is much more to such events as 9/11
and the Kennedy assassinations than we have been told, and that the financial
industry, organized crime, and political power are closely interlinked, I find
that generally speaking, conspiracy theories give too much credit to the
ability of humans to successfully manage and control complex systems. Something
mysterious is certainly going on, and the "coincidences" that people like Icke
cite defy conventional explanation, but if you'll allow a moment's indulgence
in metaphysics, I think ultimately what is happening is that our deep
ideologies and belief systems, and their unconscious shadows, generate a matrix
of synchronicities that looks very much like a conspiracy. It is in fact a conspiracy
with no conspirators. Everyone is a puppet, but there are no puppet-masters.

Moreover, the appeal
of conspiracy theories, which are usually nonfalsifiable, is just as much
psychological as it is empirical. Conspiracy theories have a dark allure because
they tap into our primal outrage and identify something onto which to channel
it, something to blame and something to hate. Unfortunately, as numerous
revolutionaries have discovered when they topple the oligarchs, our hatred is
misplaced. The true culprit is much deeper and much more pervasive. It
transcends conscious human agency, and even the bankers and oligarchs live
under its thrall. The true culprit is the alien overlords that rule the world
from their flying saucers. Just kidding.10 The true culprit, the true puppet-master that
manipulates our elites from behind the scenes, is the money system itself: a
credit-based, interest-driven system that arises from the ancient, rising tide
of separation; that generates competition, polarization, and greed; that
compels endless exponential growth; and, most importantly, that is coming to an
end in our time as the fuel for that growth-social, natural, cultural, and
spiritual capital-runs out.

The next few chapters
describe this process and the dynamics of interest, reframing the current
economic crisis as the culmination of a trend centuries in the making. Thus
revealed, we can better understand how to create not just a new money system,
but a new kind of money system, one that has the opposite effects of
ours today: sharing instead of greed, equality instead of polarization,
enrichment of the commons instead of its stripping, and sustainability instead
of growth. As well, this new kind of money system will embody an even deeper
shift that we see happening today, a shift in human identity toward a connected
self, bound to all being in the circle of the gift. Any money that is part of
this Reunion, this Great Turning, surely deserves to be called sacred.


1. Pollution credits and similar schemes seek to convert the
earth's absorptive capacity into property. Even without them, however, it is
already an invisible, embedded component of every manufactured product, an
essential input of which there is a limited supply. Even without explicit
property rights, this absorptive capacity is being taken from the commons.

2. Filmmakers, for instance, need entire "rights clearance"
legal departments in order to make sure they haven't inadvertently used some
copyrighted image in their movie. These could include images of designer
furniture, buildings, brand logos, and clothing-almost everything in the built
environment. The result has been to stifle creativity and relegate much of the
most interesting art illegal. (This is inevitable when art uses the stuff of
life around us for its subject and that stuff is in the realm of property

3. Mumford, Technics and Civilization, 142. Of
course, the person at the last stage of the invention process deserves reward
for his or her ingenuity and toil, but the social context must also be
acknowledged. This is decreasingly the case as patent and copyright periods
have expanded from their original decade or two to, in some cases, upwards of a

4. Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, chapter 1.

5. A detailed discussion of intellectual property rights is
beyond the scope of this book. Certainly, I have made a contribution to this
matrix of ideas (at least I think I have!) and deserve to be sustained in my
work. However, to prevent other people from incorporating my writing and other
creations into new creations of their own feels miserly. Practically speaking,
I advocate a broad expansion of the "fair use" doctrine and a dramatic
shortening of the term for copyrights and patents.

6. Or she accepts no reality at all, discounting everything
as just so many images and symbols. On the one hand, this allows her to "see
through the bullshit." On the other hand, it leaves her cynical and jaded.

7. Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind, 157.

8. Modern life is short, too: despite relatively long life
spans, life seems short to a busy, hurried person.

9. Nonetheless, the efforts people are making to reduce
their complicity in the wrecking of the world are very important on the level
of ritual. Ritual consists of the manipulation of symbols in order to affect
reality-even money is an implement of ritual-and therefore wield great
practical power. So please don't allow my words to dissuade you from boycotting
Wal-Mart. For a deeper discussion, see my essay "Rituals for Lover Earth"
online, preferably after having read through Chapter 8 of this book.

10. Well, not entirely. The imputation of nefarious control
to extraterrestrial or demonic entities encodes a valid insight: that the
source of evil in our world is beyond conscious human agency. There are
puppet-masters, but they are systems and ideologies, not people. As for
extraterrestrials, I have trouble answering the question of whether I "believe
in them." Perhaps the question of whether they "exist" smuggles in ontological
assumptions that aren't true, especially that there is an objective backdrop in
which things objectively either exist or do not exist. So usually I just say


Image by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo, courtesy of Creative Commons license. 



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