Sacred Economics

This week I’ve occasionally been prying my eyes away from the pages of Charles Eisentein’s 2011 book, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Societyin the Age of Transition.  There are so many well-articulated thoughts in the book that I’ll need some time to absorb them, so this post will consist mostly of quotes lifted straight from the text.  I’ve nothing else to add but the “of course!” sensation that lights my mind on almost every page, that feeling you get when a book falls off the shelf and into your hands at exactly the right time, one of life’s strangest little pleasures.

The first section of the book concerns the “gift economy”, a provocatively (oxymoronic?) phrase I’ve always liked the sound of but never properly explored.  According to Eisenstein, we can only begin to construct a solution to our current crisis once we accept the that the “axioms of rational self-interest” on which modern economics is based were never really axiomatic at all.  This might seem obvious to anyone with a healthy, lefty scepticism of capitalism as an ideology: we should, by now, have moved well beyond the notion of “homo economicus” – the fully independent Cartestian self, acting only in his rational self-interest in a world of “resources” separated from us, a world of other essentially identical (and interchangeable) individuals.  But have we?  To what extent have we ever adequately challenged this economic ontology?  For Eisenstein, we need to look way back before the Enlightenment and into our hunter-gatherer past, out of which “the first money appeared in the first agricultural civilizations that developed beyond the Neolithic village”.  For all its remarkable achievements, money is in fact the cause of as many problems as it solves.  Primarily, it is the instrument of our separation: from nature, from ourselves, from the land beneath us.  Money did not replace the barter system, as generally supposed, but a system of mutual co-operation based on the cyclical nature of the gift.  We give to one another because we have received: not merely out of an expectation of gaining something for ourselves, but out of gratitude for what is already held in common.  Unfortunately:

“Primal though it is, gratitude and the generosity flowing from it coexist with other, less savory , aspects of human nature.  While I believe in the fundamental divinity of human beings, I also recognise that we have embarked on a long sojourn of separation from that divinity, and created a world in which ruthless sociopaths rise to wealth and power.  This book doesn’t pretend such people don’t exist, nor that such tendencies don’t exist in everyone.  Rather, it seeks to awake the spirit of the gift that is latent within us, and to construct institutions that embody and encourage that spirit.  Today’s economic system rewards selfishness and greed.  What would an economic system look like that, like some ancient cultures, rewarded generosity instead?”
“Our culture’s notion of spirit is that of something separate and nonworldly, that yet can miraculously intervene in material affairs, and that even animates and directs them in some mysterious way.  It is hugely ironic and hugely significant that the one thing on the planet most closely resembling the forgoing conception of the divine is money.  It is an invisible, immortal force that surrounds and steers all things, omnipotent and limitless, an “invisible hand” that, it is said, makes the world go ‘round.  Yet, money today is an abstraction, at most symbols on a piece of paper but usually mere bits in a computer.  It exists in a realm far removed from materiality”.

The gift, on the other hand, is essential material.  As such, it could be the basis of economics in ancient societies, small and intimate enough for the giver and the receiver to exist not merely as individuals but as persons for each other, related through community ties in every instance.  It is to this understanding of economics that we need to return, says Eisenstien, and I could not agree more.

“The next stage of human economy will parallel what we are beginning to understand about nature.  It will call forth the gifts of each of us; it will emphasise cooperation over competition; it will encourage circulation over hoarding; and it will be cyclical, not linear.  Money may not disappear anytime soon, but it will serve a diminished role even as it takes on more of the properties of the gift.  The economy will shrink, and our lives will grow”.

Later chapters explore this insight and its implications for various, apparently sacrosanct notions – most of all, perhaps more familiar to traditional leftists, but no less uncomfortable to question – private property.  I’m still working my way through these chapters, and on into the more technical aspects of economics I used to run screaming from but can’t – ahem – afford to any more.  For now, let’s just consider this, from page ninety-four:

“Nearly every good and service available today meets needs that were once met for free”.