“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”A modern man, I read these old words and see: Nature is self-organising, there is nothing which is not nature, that the efforts of the ‘great’, such as Solomon or Einstein, barely compare to flowers growing ‘effortlessly’ in a meadow. And here I chose the word effort. What is effort? An African saying says, if memory serves, “Grass does not grow faster if you shout at it.” How true, and yet we have an education system shouting at children for years, trying to get them all to develop at the same speed in the same uniform way, failing them if they don’t, passing them if they do. A topic for other posts, yes, but very related to effort and work, and our ancient ideas of productivity and utility.
Jesus of Nazareth
Lilies work. They process sunlight, water, minerals, carbon dioxide, and egest oxygen. They process and transform energy into food and waste. Is it, then, that they do not work for a ‘boss’, is that why we moderns should consider them? Well, they are lilies, and thus are constrained by their nature, cannot grow into mango trees, or sprout wings to fly off like birds. They develop as lilies, their very nature being their boss. Each is unique, yes, because each has a unique biological-environmental trajectory it will ‘follow’, a unique dance of interbeing to interbe, but always as lillies. Eggs is eggs, lilies is lilies.
Should we consider them at all, then? We ‘special’ humans all interare and interdevelop uniquely for the same reasons each lily develops uniquely. And if lilies are relaxed, happy beings—another reason we might want to consider them—, what about industrious ants? They are equally children of nature, why shouldn’t we consider them? Or chimpanzees, with their warfare and blood feuds, their hierarchies, politics and complexities. (As a side note, I remember reading alpha baboons suffer more stress-related illnesses than their less powerful male troop members. Food for thought?) What about humans, shouldn’t we consider them? They are children of nature just as much as lilies, ants, chimps and sunshine, and they grow, do, react, perish, etc., just as every other living thing.
Well, for what it’s worth, I think we should consider the lilies, because we humans of today’s ‘industrious West’ have too binary, too dualistic notions and concepts of work, effort, productivity, utility, waste and value. The discipline of economics serves as the gatekeeper of these dualistic notions, but, as a semi-living thing, economics is much like the lilies of the parable; it too emerges out its supporting idea-soil as naturally as lilies grow out of their supporting soil. Unless and until its supporting cultural soil changes profoundly enough, economics will continue to be the gatekeeper of hard work, productivity and Endless Growth. And, sweet irony, one of the primary ideological sources of the hard work ethic economics emerges from and is still fed by is of course the Bible.
“In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, till you return unto the ground; for out of it were you taken: for dust you are, and unto dust shall you return.”According to the Bible, Man shall enjoy and develop increasing dominion over the beasts, is Special, has a Divine Destiny, has been given the Earth to work, to manipulate, to make use of. Some humans—we call them primitives—don’t treat the Earth that way, don’t see it as inert matter to manipulate to human ends. They appear to remain embedded in nature as unconsciously as other ‘animals’, in a fluctuating yet essentially unchanging and non-productive harmony with their environment. They produce no civilisational marvels to honour God. From the perspective of that corner of Christian tradition I am drawing on here, they are unworthy of God’s grace since they laze too much, produce too little. Economics is that intellectual dynamic of our broader culture which idolises productivity, work and the growth of its domain, Market Trading. The wild is tamed via ingenious human industry, idle resources transformed into useful goods and services, ‘useful’ because people are willing to buy them. Money, you see, as a medium of exchange, as measure and store of value, is evidence of the utility of goods and services. The movement of money reflects our desires. We don’t part with money to purchase things like leaves or blades of grass from a meadow, because no ‘effort’ or labour was used in their making. They have no economic value. (There’s far more to it than this, but I’m concentrating here on one part of this very complex equation.)
Enter machines and automation. In a way we could call automation a new soil which grows fridges, washing machines and televisions like meadows grow lilies; without much (human) effort. In a way, we can at last start saying, money grows on trees, and mean it. Sure, there was lots of human effort involved in creating these machines, but we have them now, and consequently the proportion of humans needed for the production of the basics of life has dropped dramatically over the last two hundred years or so. What has not changed in that time is our cultural attitude to money, labour and value, or, in other words, to effort and productivity.
“For Satan finds some mischief stillIdle is Bad, yet we are forcing ourselves in its direction by honouring our destiny and being inventive, creating machines to do our labour for us. We are caught between the devil and the deep, blue sea, precisely where we wanted to be (leisure!), precisely where we don’t want to be (idleness!).
For idle hands to do.”
When it takes a good proportion of us to create the goods and services we buy and sell to live and enjoy life, the money-circulation system we have is quite good. When there is plenty of room for growth, even the much maligned positive interest debt system we have is ok. But when we have no room to grow and very low need for human labour, when Consumerism is increasingly seen as a hollow and unsatisfying rat race going nowhere, the money circulation system we have breaks down.
That’s the easy part.
Breaking down our millennia-old ideas about value, work, utility and productivity is far harder. And that is the trap we are in.
Currently, money is circulated via labour and positive interest bearing debt. Humans work hard in a way considered by money (the market) as useful—the more useful the more money earned—with the most valuable workers being able to save money which serves as the leverage for investment in new production at positive interest cost, a process which ‘wisely’ cycles money, via investment-supporting institutions such as banks—whose job it is to pre-sort the wheat from the chaff—back into the economy. That there is always less ‘money’ in existence than ‘debt’ is ok while labour participation rates are high, people are unquestioningly enjoying consumerism, and there’s plenty of ‘idle’ nature left to convert into new goods and services, to 'pay for' or back the new debt-money injections. (I’m leaving aside the very important issues of sticky and harmful social stratification, tax and the other state-related difficulties.) But this system won’t work anymore for the reasons mentioned, and is taking more social and environmental energy to prop up than it is yielding in return. Return on investment has turned negative, with a now almost totally parasitic investment function gone into a feeding frenzy, turning to bloody foam what’s left of the money system.
To paraphrase Einstein, new conditions require new solutions. Wages for work make less and less sense the less we need human labour to produce wanted and needed goods and services. Positive interest debt money makes less than no sense when our rates of consumption must increase beyond unsustainable and into suicidal. Consumerism makes less than no sense considering the preceding points, and on top of them when its glittering charm fades in the face of the new circumstances and the new, still freshly emerging relationship with environment.
In short, we require new money circulation processes.
Guaranteed income is like the air in which birds fly. Birds did not ‘earn’ the air in exactly the same way humans did not earn any of the Universe. We cannot stop development, and technology is as natural as weather. Nature is technology; perceiving, solving and creating problems in infinite inter-influencing spirals. So instead of rewarding people for their labour, we enable people to reward society with their work, like the air enables birds to fly. We reverse our thinking. Birds-flapping-wings does not ‘earn’ or ‘create’ or ‘work for’ air and subsequently flight; flight is an ‘unearned’ miracle, a beautiful dance of necessary conditions, each of which emerges from Universe ‘unearned’. A guaranteed income is truer to this mutually-supporting and inter-related reality than waged labour.
Demurrage or negative interest is a pump keeping money flowing. Positive interest is likewise a pump, but it requires endless growth, and, causing us to see money as a permanent store of value, dangerously dissociates us from the law of decay, while pumping money increasingly towards itself, towards those who already have ‘too much’. Elsewhere in nature, beyond the oddly resilient walls of economics, there is no waste, no idleness. Waste is food is waste, life and death are work. Grass does not grow faster if you shout at it. Negative or reverse interest bearing money ‘decays’ the money supply, creates the ‘waste’ then recycled via guaranteed income back to all parts of human society, as blood to all extremities of the social body. It prevents coagulation, blockage, stagnation, cancer.
If it is true not one of us asked to be born, we are nevertheless born into gratitude for the richness of Universe that makes each of us possible. That feeling of gratitude (a kind of intuited and unending indebtedness) is a beautiful thing. Reverse interest money combined with a guaranteed income waters the entire economic meadow, reflects the law of decay, encourages cooperation without squashing competition, and fosters a healthy perception of abundance while demoting money’s current overbearing power. Together they recreate the mutually supporting cycles of growth and decay, of gift and debt, we see all around us.
So we should consider the lilies, though perhaps with new eyes, new science, new religion, new faith, new doubt. And as we do, we might be able to address questions such as why money stands between us and supporting the environment which supports us. Why money moves towards and supports destruction of ‘idle’ resources, chopping down forests, blowing up mountain ranges, yet away from community, gift, mutual aid and most perversely, away from diversity. We might find new ways of dealing with that most stubborn of false dichotomies, the work-play split. We might begin to want a richer and subtler set of interrelated processes for generating an ongoing and ever-shifting sense of what value is, rather than the money-based price-system which so encourages uniformity in today’s value assessments. How stifling and destructive to be bound to a situation in which not making money-sense means making no sense at all.
Now please watch Charles Eisenstein.