Monday, February 6, 2012

Economics of Obedience

It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings — Wendell Berry

My friend, Richard Hames, proposes a challenging hypothesis – “our present consensus state is delusional, as is our belief that we access information and our resulting belief that we’re informed. For instance, has capitalism worked when the largest communist country on earth actually owns a controlling interest in the debt of the largest capitalist country? Has our social conscience evolved when there are more humans (per capita) in slavery today, than at any recorded period of history?

Vast numbers of people are in a similar state today; they have little conception of the freedom, democracy or liberty they supposedly have in abundance.” However, this state is beginning to shift. Éttiene de la Boétie, in his famous discourse on voluntary servitude, poses the central question: “Why do people consent to their own enslavement?” One of his central insights is that, to topple a tyranny, the victims only need to withdraw their consent and support.

La Boétie also had the further insight that humans are free by nature, but possibly the most important lesson we can learn from his discourse is leverage. In the absence of leverage, or the use of it, victims bring about their own subjugation i.e. they ‘win’ their own enslavement. Thus, people who lose their freedom also lose their valor (strength of mind, bravery); and with it their ability to respond.

Since freedom is our natural state, we are not only in possession of it, but we should have the instinct to defend it. Defenders of freedom used to be ineffective because they were not known to one another. In fact, facing the enormous powers arrayed to maintain the status quo, our minds quail in anguish. The temporary glimpses of a more beautiful world are all the more disheartening when viewed as temporary respites from the soul-crushing, money-driven world we are used to.

But, there are always some people who cannot be tamed, subjugated or enslaved. Even if freedom were to be entirely extinguished, these people would re-invent it. Among these people, who have freed their minds, there is competition to do good for humanity - no matter what the odds are. We see their work in the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, as inner-city permaculture, with social entrepreneurship and many other engagements that are changing our world.

We humans have learned a lot in the last half-century, and our consciousness has reached a critical point in its development. It will be the same as it is with transformation on a personal level. In transitioning into a new way of being, we might revisit the old once or twice and try to fit back into the womb; but when we do, we find that it can no longer accommodate us, and a state of being we once inhabited for years becomes intolerable in weeks or days.

Take wealth for instance. A corollary to the non-hoarding of gifts and to the social nature of their giving is that wealth in gift cultures tends to be publicly transparent. When wealth was land and livestock, there was no hiding one’s wealth; and therefore no shirking the social expectations incumbent upon it. Everyone knew who had given what to whom. Translated into modern money dynamics, this suggests that all monetary holdings should be transparent.

Many people would find the idea of no financial privacy very threatening. Since money today is so bound up with self, we would feel exposed, vulnerable - as indeed, in today’s society, we would be. In a different context, though, financial transparency is part of being a person who has nothing to fear, who is comfortable in a future society. Moreover, financial transparency would make many kinds of criminal activity more difficult.

The history of civilization is also a journey from original abundance, to the extremes of scarcity and then back toward abundance at a higher level of complexity. Whether or not there ever was, or still is, a conspiracy to maintain scarcity; on some level humanity has not been ready for abundance, and probably won’t be ready for some decades to come, until we have entered deeply and thoroughly the spirit of the gift. It is our perceptions, and not our means, that engender scarcity.

We cannot predict how this new age will unfold in linear time. We do sense, however, that by the end of our lifetimes, we will live in a world unimaginably more beautiful than the one we were born into. And it will be a world that is palpably improving year after year. Work will be about: “How may I best give of my gifts?” instead of, “How can I make a living?” We will live in a richness of intimacy and community that hardly exists today.

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