WORDS: DANIEL POPE
IMAGE: KATE WEINER
A meditation on rewiring our economic system from Loam's academic-in-residence.
There is a lot of irony in my sitting here, writing on this laptop, in this café, about our separation from nature. I sit in a chair made from some amalgam of plastic and metal, at a wooden table. The metals in my laptop were probably mined by workers enslaved by warlords in Central Africa. And I sit here, writing about our Separation from Nature, polemicizing against the ravages of globalized neoliberalism.
But such is the irony of our time. To paraphrase a quotation from the documentary about anarchist activists in the former Yugoslavia, Bastards of Utopia: In a world that is hostile to your ideals, one cannot live without contradictions.
In the book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition, the author, Charles Eisenstein, shows expertly and accessibly the way in which capitalism is based, fundamentally, on debt and inequality. The way money is created, he shows, is first that the Federal Reserve buys bonds or other securities on the free market with money that it creates on the spot as a computer entry in an account (the money didn’t exist before)—this creates the money base, or M0. This means that the creation of money incurs a greater debt, because these securities come with interest. Then banks that are commercially licensed by the Fed gives loans to creditworthy debtors, which of course incurs another, greater debt, the debt that the debtor owes the creditor. These loans are also made with money that did not exist before, but appears with a wave of the financial wand in their bank accounts.
This, of course, means that whenever money is created, a greater debt is always created as well. No matter who owes whom, no matter at which scale, there must always be economic growth in order to generate money to service or pay off these debts. This growth can either involve the destruction and commodification of more resources, or the creation of new goods and services. Eisenstein argues that almost all of the old social networks and webs of mutual support have been commodified by the money machine to expand the realm of goods and services, which enter the domain of money in order to feed endless growth, creating constant inequality alongside the illusion of scarcity. And when growth slows—as it necessarily does in a finite world—debt and inequality skyrocket, and elites hoard wealth, which just sits there, uselessly.
The failure of capitalism is obvious when viewed in light of the ideological fundament of separation upon which it is built. There has been an explosion of thought and theory that revolves around this question of our separation from the natural earth; these new forms of thought show that it is an illusion that we are beginning to think ourselves out of. The New Materialism and New Economics are two areas in which academics and activists are trying to envision new political and economic possibilities that are based in the fundamental understanding that we are inseparable from each other and our environment, and that even these categories of “self,” “other,” and “nature” are artificial and arbitrary categories that result from our understanding of ourselves (humans) as being fundamentally separate from the world.
This understanding runs contrary to a global neoliberal understanding of the earth as existing for our exploitation. Luckily or unluckily, depending how you look at it, we can’t support this viewpoint much longer. Pretty soon we will need to completely overhaul the way we think about the economy and the earth and our relationship to both; we will need to, as Jane Bennett attempted to do in her fantastic book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, develop new forms of politics in order to include the representation of nonhuman animals and material things in our political decisions. We will need a new form of economic thought that ensures the reproduction of the commons and secures a give-and-take with the earth that, like any good ecology does, produces as byproduct what can be consumed by other organisms, which in turn produce as byproduct what we consume to survive. This entails a confrontation between ourselves and the organically useless waste that we’ve produced.
These things are already beginning to be examined; I’ve already cited a couple examples of thinkers attempting to address these issues. The way that we must implement these new forms of relationships outside of our current money system won’t be a revolution in the sense that the word has traditionally represented in political discourse. Instead, it will probably be a radical withdrawal from global capitalism and from abstract economic forms alongside a resurgence of embedded, place-based community economies. This is what will count as “radical”: a new importance of place and community that will develop into chains of economic flows that ensures the reproduction of communities and egalitarian relations.
This means that the most important thing any of us can do is to invest in local economies, empowering them to become more self-sufficient; we must abandon businesses that externalize the negative effects of production, creating artificially cheap commodities with outsized negative effects on the earth, and support those that minimize the destruction of the commons and invest in its reproduction. We must also generate political support for economic measures that integrate the cost of environmental destruction into the prices of the things that we buy, creating incentive for businesses to become more sustainable. Under our current system, environmental despoliation is perfectly rational because it ensures short-term growth, whereas measures that ensure sustainability are bad business. It’s time that we change the way we think, fundamentally, about money and economics by paying attention to what the world is trying to tell us.
Capitalism cannot grow anymore. The evidence in support of austerity and privatization and other neoliberal measures has been proven false; the impossibility of endless growth precludes even more progressive, Keynesian economics. Inequality is built into capitalism as an inevitability that cannot be extricated. It’s time to plunge into communities of real people with real, complex relationships that escape objectification and commodification.