Friday, August 24, 2012

Beyond Money

With the permission of the editor, we reprint the following post from the New. Clear. Vision. blog.

The Foundation of the System’s Replacement  by Robert C. Koehler 

“Everyone loved him.”

The hole was too deep; these words couldn’t fill it. But there they remain, floating on the regret, vibrant with the possibility of a different kind of world. We’ve always been in the process of building that world, but the process has lacked a central cohesion . . . a god, if you will, to bless it and keep it.

Antonis Perris, an unemployed musician from Athens, found himself at age 60 living in a world where the love of his community didn’t matter and probably wasn’t even noticeable: He had lost his means to earn a living. Until Europe’s economic crisis hit, he had sustained himself and his elderly mother performing at local taverns. He had done well. Then business dried up. Finally, he reached a point where he saw no way to keep on living. The brief story of his death last May — one more “economic suicide” — was reported recently in the Washington Post:
The next morning, Perris took the hand of his ailing 90-year-old mother. They climbed to the roof of their apartment building and leapt to their death.
Europe has had thousands of economic suicides in the last few years. They always shock the community. In Greece, which has been reeling in economic crisis for five years now, “The suicide notes left in coat pockets or on desks,” the Post writes, “. . . are being passed around on the Internet and studied like the final treatises of revered scholars.”

“Everyone loved him,” a local cafĂ© owner said. People would have helped him out, and helped his mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. But they didn’t know how badly the two were doing. Now their deaths are a gash across the community, across the country and perhaps all of Europe — and perhaps large parts of the so-called First World, where the middle class is crumbling. The poverty and despoliation — the dark side of capitalism — are no longer contained, relegated to the Third World and the Third World pockets of the First.

The situation has gotten so bad that the idea of debt forgiveness is gaining mainstream cachet. Erik Kain, writing last October in Forbes, brought up “the old biblical idea of a jubilee — a national cancellation of private debts. . . .

“In many ways,” he observed, “rather than creating a sustainable economy built around steadily rising middle and working class wages, we’ve built an unsustainable economy built on consumer debt. That debt has propelled the growth we’ve seen in recent years, acting as a sort of perpetual Keynesian injection into the economy. Now we’re paying the price.”

While I see debt forgiveness as a move in the right direction — an acknowledgment that debt isn’t simply a moral failing, and that the wealth of creditors, who have in so many ways rigged the game in their favor, isn’t all the matters — I wince at the provincialism of those who limit their concern to the American middle class, or would do no more to fix the system than increase wages for the working and professional classes.

Better wages that are the result of devastated environmental regulations, or that come at the expense of the Third World or future generations? The economic crisis is global in nature and the flaws of the system are deep and profound.

“The economy’s only valid purpose is to serve life,” David Korten wrote this month in Yes! Magazine.

The economy should not be an end in itself, an irresistible force that we fail to serve at our peril — yet that’s the conventional attitude. The economic suicides of Europe and, indeed, of every country on the planet, are testimony to the prevalence of this belief. We serve money as though it were God. When it disappears from our life, the most honorable alternative, as we stare into the abyss, is suicide.

We live within an economic system that is cruel and impersonal, divorced from gratitude, empathy, compassion, love and nurturance. (Money, whatever else it is, is the root of all cynicism.) This system is also voracious. It’s eating the planet: eating, i.e., privatizing and selling back to us, what was once the human and environmental commons, the context of all life.

“Real capital assets,” writes Korten in his excellent essay, “have productive value in their own right and cannot be created with a computer key stroke. The most essential forms of real capital are social capital (the bonds of trust and caring essential to healthy community function) and biosystem capital (the living systems essential to Earth’s capacity to support life). We are depleting both with reckless abandon.”

Trapped within the present economic system, so many people have limited patience for what they value most deeply, e.g., the happiness and loving growth of children, the glorious fecundity of the earth, the peace that passes all understanding. Who has time? We all loved him, but . . .

As the system crashes, we have the opportunity to look beyond it. Let’s dig deeply to establish the foundation of its replacement.

Robert C. Koehler is an award-winning journalist, nationally syndicated writer, and Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. This post originally appeared on New. Clear. Vision. blog 22 August.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Crossroads

Recently Pablo Salon posted a great piece on the so-called green economy on his blog: 'At the crossroads between green economy and rights of nature'. In it he castigates the rise of 'Natural Capital' as a way of defining and ruling nature for the narrow and damaging interests of capitalism. He uses the REDD scheme of carbon credits to highlight the dangers and absurdity of evolving capitalist practices for the natural functioning of forests, which benefits humans in the general rather than capitalists in particular. He asks us to '[i]magine what will happen when and if this same logic is applied to biodiversity, water, soil, agriculture, oceans, fishery and so on', concluding that:
The "green economy" will be absolutely destructive because it is premised on the principle that transfusion of the rules of the market will save nature...
We need to overthrow capitalism and develop a system that is based on the Community of the Earth.
 I urge you to read the whole post.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Guest blog by Terry Leahy


Terry Leahy, author of Chapter 6 of Life Without Money comments on a recent book.

Daniel Miller’s recent book Consumption and its Consequences (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2012) continues his ethnographic work on the reasons why people consume, but also looks at these issues in relation to the environmental problems of consumption. The middle part contains the heart of Miller’s argument that no amount of green consumerism is likely to restrain consumption in ways that sufficiently protect the environment. This argument he summarizes here:

At one level most consumption is about basic household provisioning, as in food or clothing. More deeply, it is also about the intensity of relationships with the people you care most about or live with, about status and local symbolic systems. (158)

One study, which informs this, followed shoppers on their trips to the shops in the UK. Miller was mainly looking at housewives. What he found was far from a glorious indulgence in ‘materialist’ consumerism. Housewives were concerned to save the money of their family and careful not to splurge on their own fancies. In another of his studies, he looks at the way the people of Trinidad express themselves in showy purchases of clothing or refitting their cars with flash upholstery. He traces this to a situation in which money and dignity is in short supply and local people establish their status through display and a personal expression of their own style.

But what does he then propose to deal with the environmental crisis we are now facing? It is pointless to try to urge people to make different consumer choices; this is the wrong end of the problem to be tackling. We should tackle the production end. The way to do this is to engage scientific advice on what production needs to be curtailed for the sake of the environment. For example, we could ban gas guzzlers, restricting engines to 1.6 litres.

What Miller does not really take into account here are the vested interests of a capitalist economy that make this solution difficult. Such a regulation might well be scientifically rational but the impact would be massive on the economy, wages and jobs, a political hurdle preventing the well-meaning solutions Miller suggests from implementation already. People voting as consumers makes effective environmental regulation very difficult politically. Miller is certainly right in thinking that the current situation makes it difficult to reign in environmental damage through moral campaigns directed at consumer habits but this same situation makes it equally difficult to adopt the solution he recommends.

Miller does not believe any major change away from capitalism is possible or desirable. He writes of himself as a Norwegian social democrat. Miller does not highlight the key importance of people expressing themselves in consumption because they are alienated in their work, a central aspect of consumer pressures in every country that relies on wage labour. They seek expression and social connection through their consumption because they get little of either at work. Whether goods are provided by the market or by the state, the provision of goods has to be impersonal and bureaucratic.

This is where the idea of the gift economy comes in. It is a third alternative for modernity — not capitalism and not a centralized state based socialism. It is really a package of ideas for organizing production and consumption that gets beyond the impasse Miller describes. The model of ethical behaviour normalized in a gift economy is for people to look after the well being of others and to ensure an equality of outcomes.

How would a gift economy avoid the problems that modern economies now experience with consumption? The daily experience of work in a gift economy is engaging and meaningful. Working harder does not produce an increase in your own personal consumption and working is not necessary to survive. There is less motivation to consume because the pleasures of social connection and self-expression are also a strong feature of work. There is less motivation to produce because you are not required to produce to gain an income and consume and you cannot consume simply more by producing more, mechanisms which prevent over-consumption.

In a gift economy there is no government, so no possibility for environmental regulation by government. Producers control the methods of production and are concerned about their own health and the environmental wellbeing of their own community. Production is not for the market, but for use. Decisions about what to produce and for whom are made by a vast and complex set of decision makers. The aim of producers is to produce and allocate goods that are most needed and likely to give pleasure. Doing this they will be most rewarded with status and maintain support for the gift economy. Such a structure for making decisions would certainly do a lot better than the market in terms of redistribution and environmental outcomes and just as well in efficient production and allocation of goods and resources.

To make a final comment, let us return to the Green shopper characterized as a cold-hearted fish who puts abstract environmental goals in front of the interests of their family. How does the gift economy deal with the trade-off between altruism and localism? In the gift economy the producer looks after their community and family by making sure that their production is not damaging their community and environment. Control at the point of production reconciles the supposedly abstract environmental issues with the local and family issues. What about the needs of people outside of their immediate community? People do not just work to provide for their own community but provide gifts for those to whom they are not personally connected by locality. The intention of this work is to bring other people closer and to extend the arena of intimacy to concrete others, rather than to perform a sacrifice in relation to impersonal ideals. They are making friends and extending the affluence of all parties at the same time.