Tag Archive: Capitalism


capitalism
I was a first-time author waiting to give my first live online interview, and I was nervous. With only a few minutes to make my case for global transformation, I expected the host Gary Null to cut to the chase, but instead he opened with a curve ball. The Occupy movement was afoot, and Gary recounted seeing the police ransack a makeshift kitchen set up to feed the homeless. He was fishing for an explanation, but I could offer nothing beyond my shared vexation. Although this gave us more time to discuss my book (the title of which I nevertheless failed to mention), I soon came to regret this missed opportunity to air a topic that had been all but forbidden just a few months before: class warfare.

If I’d had more time and lucidity, I would have mentioned other gift-based movements like Food Not Bombs and The San Francisco Diggers that have faced routine harassment. I would have lamented the absurd illegality of dumpster diving. I would have talked about the War on Drugs and how America imprisons more of its citizens—mostly poor people of color—than any other country in history, mainly for petty drug offenses, while those with white skin and white collars (who use illegal drugs themselves) enjoy almost total impunity for fraud, embezzlement, insider trading, war profiteering, and other high crimes that adversely affect millions of lives. I would have described the aggressive, well-organized, and ongoing campaign led by corporate-backed politicians to kill unions, outsource and automate jobs, keep the minimum wage unlivable, defund Social Security, cut Medicaid and food stamps, and generally shred the social safety net.

I would have concluded, like my allies in Occupy and millions of other reasonable people, that an all-out war against the poor and working class has been raging for decades.

As Marx pointed out, class conflict is as old as civilization itself. But in the US, the war in question was, by most accounts, unofficially declared by Ronald Reagan, who espoused the theory that wealth would somehow “trickle down” from the upper class to the lower. Needless to say, no such trickle has occurred, and the wealth gap has since become a seemingly unbridgeable chasm. One of Reagan’s closest comrades was Margaret Thatcher, an equally ardent devotee of Ayn Rand (“altruism is evil”) who infamously asserted that “there is no such thing as society.” Thatcher also earned the nickname “TINA” for declaring “There Is No Alternative” to the pro-corporate laissez-faire economic policies, structural adjustment programs, and austerity measures that have since been imposed throughout the world, under the authority of every US President since Reagan.

Of course, most elites would deny that a class war is being waged. Among those who dare entertain the notion, the tendency is to insist that it is the rich, not the poor, who are put upon and persecuted. Such was the recent claim of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who went so far as to compare the 1% to the Jews during the Holocaust. Though his hyperbole was widely criticized, Perkins was defended by the Wall Street Journal in a follow-up article that concluded: “The liberals aren’t encouraging violence, but they are promoting personal vilification and the abuse of government power to punish political opponents.”

Apparently for the rich right, it’s all about politics. Fairness is not the issue, nor even poverty. Never mind the billions of people worldwide who are scraping by on $1.25/day or less. Pay no attention to starving children in Zambia, sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, rice farmers in China, and struggling single mothers in the US. Forget the populist rhetoric of Obama, the admonitions of the Pope, the ideals of the Founding Fathers, and the core teachings of every major religion. Disregard the recent Oxfam report revealing that the richest 85 people in the world own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity. And if you can’t ignore such news, why not openly celebrate it like Kevin O’Leary, a reality show host and investor who called the Oxfam findings “fantastic” and asked, “What can be wrong with this?” Not to be outdone, a staff writer for Forbes described income inequality as “unrelentingly beautiful,” insisting (again in his italics) that “inequality hasn’t increased enough.”

One could dismiss these guys as renegade extremists if their ideas weren’t so apparently widespread amongst the top percentile. But normally such “greed is good” rhetoric is kept confined to smoke-filled back rooms, secret society functions, and $1000-a-plate dinners, which begs the question: why the recent public displays of psychopathy and megalomania? Perhaps the rich believe that the war on the poor has already been won, as maintained by journalist and producer of The Wire, David Simon. If indeed the common folk have been successfully subjugated, then there is little to lose by offending them, since any insurrection can and will be quickly and violently suppressed, as happened with Occupy.

On the other hand there exists a more hopeful possibility, one suggested by the persecution complex of the 1 percent: they’re worried that their halcyon days are numbered, genuinely afraid of a sudden outbreak of equality. Only time will tell if we the people will, like citizens in so many countries throughout the world, rise again in defense of our most cherished ideals.

billet 100 dollars #1

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has famously remarked that for most people it’s easier to imagine the end of life on earth than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. This might be especially true in America, where despite ample evidence of the antagonism between free markets and freedom, the two have become virtually synonymous in the popular psyche, and where both are frequently defended with a passion that Patrick Henry would admire.

Yet a growing number of people are realizing that economic liberty and death are indeed linked, but not in the way neoliberals imagine. To return to Zizek’s idea, capitalism and apocalypse go together in that the former could well cause the latter. Certainly much has already been said about the basic incompatibility between a system predicated on infinite growth and the finite resources of Earth, but capitalism has other, related design flaws that are already proving fatal, not only to various life forms but to the vitality of human communities as well. What follows is a list of capitalism’s seven deadliest sins (or capital vices), presented in reverse order.

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#7: AMORALITY
Although some economic actors do indeed behave immorally (while many strive to do good), the system as a whole frankly doesn’t give a damn. Its only “concern” is its own survival and growth, which always trumps the welfare of those living within its constraints. As a refutation of the claim that capitalism is the most efficient distributor of resources, consider that almost 50% of food is wasted in America, much of it by producers and vendors. Such waste is all the more egregious when witnessed by actual hungry people. As the linked article explains:

In a capitalist society, the motive behind the production of food is not to feed people, housing is not made to give them shelter, clothing is not made to keep them warm, and health care is not offered primarily to keep people healthy. All of these things, which are and should be viewed as basic rights, are nothing other than commodities—to be bought and sold—from which to make a profit. If a profit cannot be made, usually due to overproduction in relation to the market, the commodity is considered useless by the capitalist and destroyed.

By a similar logic, money better spent on the curing of serious diseases like malaria and HIV is often funneled into relatively trivial conditions like male baldness and erectile dysfunction that affect fewer people but generate greater revenue.

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#6: INTRINSIC INEQUALITY
Due largely to deadly defects in the monetary system (see #1 below), capitalism divides the world into haves and have-nots, inevitably concentrating wealth in the hands of the former—as we have seen in recent years and in the period preceding the Great Depression—until redistribution or revolution. Despite the rhetoric, a rising economic tide does not raise all boats; it only raises the yachts while the dinghies, deprived of bailouts, inevitably go under.

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#5: POVERTY
One of the most common arguments for global capitalism is that it helps alleviate poverty. Problem is, global poverty statistics are generated by the World Bank, an institution explicitly designed to promote globalization. Critics argue that (1) the numbers are usually skewed by one or two rapidly developing countries, (2) the definition of deep poverty as a wage of $1.25/day is set arbitrarily low in order to yield the desired stats, and (3) daily wages say nothing about access to potable water, adequate nutrition, healthcare, education, community, and other things that determine quality of life. Moreover, poverty rates mean little when economic disparity has increased so dramatically in recent decades.

Actually, a compelling argument can be made that global capitalism doesn’t alleviate poverty but causes poverty. After all, the aim of globalization is to expand markets by infiltrating “undeveloped” (read: self-sufficient) communities and dragging them into the money economy, thus creating new laborers and consumers. Could members of a gift-based, indigenous tribe really be called “poor”? Only by the logic of capitalism, which defines poverty as the inability to purchase one’s basic necessities (which might include designer clothing) from an outside party using fiat currency.

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# 4: EXTERNALIZATION
To externalize a cost is to pass it along to someone else, typically the general public and the environment. The most obvious example is pollution: when Company X dumps its toxic waste into a river, downstream communities pay with health problems and ecological degradation. Another example is given in the now-classic Story of Stuff when Annie Leonard talks about buying a $4.99 radio and realizing that the low price is only possible because of the many externalized costs and the people around the world who paid them.

The main purveyors of this capital vice are corporations, which function mainly by privatizing profits and publicizing costs. Indeed a corporation has been described as an “externalizing machine, in the same way that a shark is a killing machine (1),” each doing what they are designed to do. Externalization is legally enshrined in the limited liability corporation (LLC), which cleverly enables risk-taking and pathologically encourages irresponsibility.

A 2013 UN-sponsored study showed that if the world’s top industries were forced to absorb their own costs, none of them would make a profit.

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# 3: GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT
GDP is supposed to monitor economic wellbeing by tallying up all the goods and services exchanged within a given area and time frame. But GDP sinfully ignores what is being exchanged, such that war, natural disasters, accidents, disease, depression, and other negatives are counted as positives for GDP because they generate revenue, while life-affirming activities like volunteering and gifting are not counted at all. Furthermore, GDP ignores the distribution of wealth.

The bottom line is that a simple number says nothing about human happiness or ecological integrity. In fact, a rise in artificial wealth generally corresponds with a decline in natural wealth. As author Paul Hawken has said, “We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.”

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# 2: PRIVATE PROPERTY
The Romans were the first to advance the legal concept of dominium, which was considered “the ultimate right, the right which had no right behind it, the right which legitimated all others, while itself having no need of legitimation… the right ‘of using, enjoying, and abusing’”(2) This dominator mindset prevailed throughout Europe and eventually infiltrated what is now America, where the ownership of land is still considered an unalienable and unquestioned right.

But to the native peoples of this continent who were so brutalized, land ownership was an absurd concept, for it suggested that a greater power (nature) could be owned by a lesser power (humans). In all parts of the world, indigenous groups have upheld reverence for nature and a respect for “the commons”—the air, water, and land that supports life and thus rightly belong to all living creatures.

By contrast, capitalism strives to privatize and profit from everything; not only land but water, slices of the electromagnetic spectrum, species, seeds, genes, songs, images, ideas, etc. This vice was summed up by the anarchist Proudhon, who said, “Property is theft.”

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# 1: USURY
If anything can be considered the root of all evil, it would have to be usury. The practice of lending money at interest is condemned by most religions, including the Abrahamic faiths, although the Bible allows Jews to profit from foreigners as a way of “fighting without a sword.” The implication of violence is inherent in usury, which is basically the opposite of a gift.

In our modern economic system, institutional theft is the business of commercial banks and the (private) Fed, which have been empowered to conjure money into existence as interest-bearing debt. Since the money to repay all these loans (with interest) doesn’t exist, society is driven by a sense of competition and a mentality of scarcity. Worse yet, usury creates a demand for continuous economic growth (measured in GDP), without which the economy is subject to collapse.

As noted, such growth is obviously unsustainable and ultimately suicidal. Although we may be on the road to ruin, it’s never too late to change our wicked ways.

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(1) Robert Monk (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._G._Monks)
(2) Avila (2004) Ownership: Early Christian Teaching, p. 20 (via Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics)

Wisdom 2.0 and the Protection of the Spiritual Commons

NOTE: The following article was originally published on Reality Sandwich around 3/23/13. Although appearing on this blog after the related article entitled “Speaking Truth to Power,” this article was written first.
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Over the last weekend in February, executives from tech companies like Google, Cisco, Zynga, and Twitter shared a stage in Silicon Valley with spiritual luminaries such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, Marianne Williamson, and Joan Halifax for the fourth annual Wisdom 2.0 conference. In presentations, interviews, panel discussions, and breakout sessions, the role of spirituality in business and society was explored from every angle—almost. One question that hung heavily in the ether above the privileged participants was this: Is Wisdom 2.0 really an upgrade?

Lacking $275 for admission, I watched the conference online. Not the whole thing of course, but enough to hear almost every New Age buzzword rendered nearly meaningless through repetition. Speeches on mindful management, conscious leadership, and wisdom in the workplace were all delivered with a warm glow of self-satisfaction. Yet few speakers seemed conscious of the obscenely affluent elephant in the room.

The notable exception was the best-selling author Marianne Williamson, who pointed at the pachyderm several times during the conference. On the final afternoon, her gentleness gave way to a fierce compassion that inspired her to drop this show-stealing zinger:

“Let me tell you something ladies and gentlemen: no spiritual leader person is going to come here and be a dancing monkey to help a bunch of rich capitalists talk about the fact that they can have a more compassionate workplace and meditation rooms while not dealing with the moral calling and the moral invitation of our species to deal with the fact that we have so much and so many have so little…

Only in modern America could we come up with some ersatz version of spirituality that gives us a pass on addressing the unnecessary human suffering in our midst.”

Bravo! Finally, a piece of real wisdom—good, old-fashioned Wisdom 1.0—designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The basic point of Marianne’s brave and brilliant speech (see below) was that mindfulness is all well and good, but that wisdom and compassion mean nothing if not extended beyond the cozy confines of Silicon Valley to the entire Earth community. On an even deeper, unspoken level, she was saying, “Sorry techies, but you cannot use the word ‘wisdom’ unless you really mean it, unless you actually live it.” With a flash of Manjusri’s sword, she drew a line in the sand.

As Marianne demonstrated, real wisdom requires asking the most challenging and probing questions, the ones that disarm the ego and cut to the heart of the matter. As a co-defender of this brand of wisdom, I feel called to pick up the sword and ask the question that has kept occurring to me:

Is wisdom even compatible with capitalism?

Almost all spiritual traditions stress the central importance of generosity. In Buddhism, for example, dana is considered the highest of the ten paramitas or spiritual virtues. By contrast, capitalism is based not on giving but on taking. Starting with the premise that humans are fundamentally selfish, it presupposes that every individual is out to maximize self-interest, which means getting something for nothing if possible. Such is the basis of usury, through which all money is brought into being. It is also the basis of private property, a relatively recent legal creation that grants an individual or corporate “person” the right to own, exploit, and profit from a piece of Nature that rightfully belongs to every living creature.

In general, capitalism operates by stealing from the commons, by appropriating something from the non-monetized realm and dragging it into the marketplace. Such appropriation and commodification happens constantly, often in the most insidious and unconscious ways. It can even happen right in front of hundreds of extremely smart and well-intentioned people in northern California.

Granted, the tech industry represents an emerging form of capitalism based largely upon intellectual property, which is surely less extractive than the manufacturing and shipping of computers and other hardware and the maintenance of servers. Yet even new ideas are based on older ones, begging the question of whether truly original ideas exist, and if so, how much are they worth? Before the advent of capitalism, common wisdom suggested that any idea was valuable to the extent that it benefitted one’s community. Personal gain was not an issue.

These days, our community is the whole world—a world of rising temperatures, declining natural systems, disappearing species, and an ever-widening chasm between rich and poor. The stakes are high, as are the moral standards to which influential people ought be held. Like everyone at Wisdom 2.0, I believe that that the intersection of spirituality and technology holds enormous potential for profound social change. I can only hope that the brightest minds of our day will be inspired by genuine wisdom to create not just a kinder business model but a more just and compassionate world, one that works not only for the privileged few, but for all. Should we succeed at making this monumental transition, we could even call it “Civilization 2.0.”

williamson
If you don’t know the author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson by name, you may have seen her most famous quotation posted on an office bulletin board or refrigerator door. Taken from her best-selling book A Return to Love, the passage begins: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? …. Your playing small does not serve the world…”

Marianne herself is not one to play small. Despite her petite build, she’s a dynamic speaker who frequently commands the attention of large audiences around the world. Unlike some rock star gurus, she’s not afraid to mix spirituality with politics and display her vibrant liberal plumage in her ongoing crusade to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Indeed it was this well-known phrase that Marianne invoked at Wisdom 2.0 this year as she schooled participants about true wisdom and global responsibility in a show-stealing speech that included her refusal to be a “dancing monkey for a bunch of rich capitalists,” a line that quickly turned my longstanding indifference to deep respect. Inspired to look into Marianne’s life and work, I learned that her fierceness is even more apparent offstage, at least to those who describe her as harsh, demanding, and controlling, a reputation that she seems keen to perpetuate by calling herself “the bitch of God.”

Thus I was a bit nervous as I queued up to question Marianne in front of hundreds of faithful fans packing the pews at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Francisco. It was here that the public programs department of my alma mater, the California Institute of Integral Studies, had booked Marianne to speak, with a specific request that she put her progressive foot forward. She was even presented with a title: “Speaking Truth to Power: A Spirituality That Inspires Social Change,” to which she did justice by preaching passionately on poverty, civil and human rights, feminism, the Occupy movement, corporate corruption, and the addictive nature of American culture, among other things.

Her speech was quite inspiring, actually. Yet she failed to address a question that has been on my mind for quite awhile, namely: How to cultivate an attitude of abundance, universal love, and generosity while living under the soul-crushing heel an economic system predicated on scarcity, competition, and exploitation? I believe that individual awakening is impossible without cultural awakening, which is impossible without a radical restructuring of our systems of finance and governance to more accurately reflect the interconnected nature of reality. Surely many spiritual leaders would agree, yet none that I know—except the Dalai Lama, who calls himself a socialist—have dared to directly challenge the status quo, perhaps reluctant to bite the hand that feeds. In fact many of them continue peddling the old “law of attraction” snake oil that keeps people focused on personal gain rather than collective transformation.

Marianne Williamson is no exception. Her latest book, The Law of Divine Compensation, is essentially a rewrite of The Secret, itself a mash-up of dozens of “think and grow rich” books that had come before. Since Marianne’s new book was handed out to all attendees, I had a chance to skim through it before her appearance, hoping to find some truly radical gem buried within. Finding nothing of the sort, I decided to compassionately call her out, and immediately started scribbling my thoughts on the book’s back page, for reference in case of brain freeze. This would prove to be a mistake.

I was the last questioner in the queue. Book in hand and butterflies in stomach, I stepped up to the mic and said something like this:

“First of all, thank you for your talk, and for bringing such fire into the otherwise watery realm of spirituality. I especially want to thank you for bringing up the addiction piece, which I find to be totally spot on. But I don’t think we can talk about addiction without talking about our economic system, which is based on addiction, on the endless drive for more and more. And we can’t really talk about abundance without addressing an economic system that is based on scarcity, and that forces us into competition with one another, no matter how loving we’d like to be. This is the conversation I’d like to see happening in our public spaces. It’s the elephant in the room; it’s the third rail…nobody wants to talk about it. So my hope, my prayer, is that people with spiritual authority and wisdom like you will start to discuss our economic system and its fatal flaws, to at least get the conversation started.”

I can’t remember if anyone clapped, but I was pleased with myself for speaking truth to spiritual power—in a relatively calm and coherent manner even. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been more explicit by uttering if not emphasizing the unspeakable C-word—capitalism—but I didn’t want to sound like a myopic Marxist when the problem as I see it runs deeper and wider, to the monetary system itself and the outdated assumptions upon which it rests. At any rate, my basic point was unequivocal enough. Or so I thought.

My pride quickly turned to dismay as Marianne artfully dodged—no, completely subverted—my subtly subversive question, turning it into a pitch for the little blue book I happened to be carrying. She even joked about me being planted by her publisher so that she could finally get down to business and share with us the keys to wealth and prosperity that she had learned on her journey to New Age notoriety.
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Apparently, in the world of pop spirituality no less than business, it helps to be an egomaniac. I later learned that Marianne lived up to her reputation that night, bossing and berating her backstage point people to the brink of tears. The experience served as a powerful reminder that spiritual celebrities like Marianne, Deepak Chopra, and Wayne Dyer are—first and foremost perhaps—expert entertainers. This is not to say that their books and lectures are devoid of powerful truths and potentially transformative ideas, but that behind the wise words lie beautifully flawed humans seeking power, recognition, and yes, even money. Another, more cynical notion is that our teachers, like all of us, often behave more like monkeys, dancing for a bunch of rich capitalists to a tune that nobody can even imagine ending.

Book Review: Conscious Capitalism (John Mackey)

The following article was originally published on Reality Sandwich on February 1, 2013.
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Don’t be fooled by the cheerful yellow cover, by the New Age-y words in the title, or by the huge sign above the display that says “Revolutionize Capitalism.” Just take a look at the first endorsement on the first page, which reads, “Conscious Capitalism is a welcome explication and endorsement of the virtues of free-enterprise capitalism—properly comprehended, there is no more beneficial economic system…” and you’ll properly comprehend that the new screed by Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey and co-author Raj Sisodia is about as revolutionary as a lazy Susan filled with fantastically overpriced GMO corn chips.

In the introduction, Mackey confesses that before cofounding Whole Foods Market in the late 80s, he had “drifted into progressivism,” grown his hair, and worked at a food co-op under the banner of “food for people, not profits.” He then experienced an “awakening” in which he discovered that capitalism was “fundamentally good and ethical.” His transformation was catalyzed, predictably, by the books of Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and other neoliberal prophets of profit who consider altruism immoral and dream of drowning government in the bathtub.

Revolutionizing capitalism would entail abolishing the Fed, overhauling the global banking system, prohibiting usury, strictly regulating Wall Street, and abandoning GDP and other metrics that demand endless and therefore destructive economic growth. At the very least, it would require ending the ability of corporations to externalize costs, i.e. pass them on to the public and the environment. Needless to say, Mackey doesn’t suggest any of these measures. Instead, he defies his more heartless heroes by advancing a kindler, gentler capitalism that embraces purpose, considers the wellbeing of employees, customers, and communities, and focuses on the “triple bottom line” of people, planet, and profits. Mackey’s nod to Gaia would be laudable if it weren’t so laughable, coming as it is from a climate change denier. For the record, Mackey also hates unions and Obamacare, likening them to herpes and fascism, respectively.

If Mackey is conscious of anything, it’s that capitalism is on the defensive these days; thus his attempt to “change the narrative” and inspire in his readers an epiphany akin to his own regarding the “heroic spirit of business.” In the first part of the book, he waxes prosaic about how capitalism has “transformed the face of the planet [much for the worse, unfortunately] and the complexion [interesting choice of words] of daily life for the vast majority of people.” In another example of organic cherry picking, Mackey hails the flourishing of democracy under globalization, ignoring the many instances in which democracy and capitalism have found themselves at bitter and often very deadly odds (see especially The Shock Doctrine for devastating details).

Towards the end of the book, Mackey attempts to counter the anticipated argument that his book is little more than a “lipstick on a pig.” I would contend that “conscious capitalism” is a much bigger and more dangerous oxymoron, more like a T-rex in a tutu who wants to kindly and gently destroy everything you’ve ever loved.

Don’t buy Mackey’s ruse. In fact, don’t buy anything at Whole Foods if you can help it. Shop at your local farmer’s market and bank at your local credit union. It’s high time to starve the beast of modern capitalism, or at least deprive it of oxygen until it becomes as unconscious as its faithful servants.

The following article was originally published on Reality Sandwich on November 9, 2012.

moneyless manifesto
While reading the free, online version of Mark Boyle’s new book, The Moneyless Manifesto, I compulsively clicked over to my Facebook feed only to see the image of a presumably homeless man holding a tattered cardboard sign reading: “Keep your coins. I want change.” It struck me how this clever meme could well be the motto of Boyle himself, a UK resident also known as the Moneyless Man for having written a book by that title while living without a pence to his name—on purpose, mind you.

Coincidentally, Boyle went moneyless in 2008, the year of the Wall Street crash that brought the subject of money front and center in the collective consciousness, with many people wondering, “Where did it all go?” and others asking, “Where did it come from in the first place?” The weird wizardry and inherent injustice of money creation has been covered by countless YouTube videos including the Zeitgeist films of Peter Joseph, while the deeper questions about the unnatural nature of money have been eloquently addressed in books like Debt: The First 5000 Years (David Graeber) and Sacred Economics (Charles Eisenstein), both of which are referenced in The Moneyless Manifesto.

Indeed the book begins with a foreword by Eisenstein, followed by a careful unearthing of the assumptions that support what Boyle calls the money delusion, including the root belief in a separate, independent self. Like Eisenstein, Boyle explains why money is so destructive to the social fabric and the web of life and maintains that money is simply a story, a shared illusion. But he boldly goes a step further than most by unraveling the restrictive yarn that money is a necessary evil, something we all need to survive. And he does so by way of quiet example, not just surviving but thriving—reconnecting to the rhythms of nature, to the gifting spirit of others, and to his own peace of heart-mind by living a money-free life.

For those interested in doing the same, Boyle advocates an incremental approach that he ingeniously describes as a Progression of Principles towards a truly moneylesseconomy, defined by Boyle as one based on gifting, local resources only, and a pay-it-forward attitude. Here he reveals his Luddite leanings by eschewing imported gadgets and dismissing techno-utopian solutions like those advanced by the Zeitgeist films and the Venus Project. Like Derrick Jensen and others, Boyle regards agriculture as a massive mistake from which humanity is still trying to recover, and insists that our only hope lies in reconnecting to our Paleolithic—or at least preindustrial—past. As an ecologically engaged Buddhist, I’ve long imagined a middle path, although I’m encouraged to reconsider this as a delusion tied to my addictions to modernity.

Boyle’s path, which he prefers to tread barefoot, is beautifully earthy: “I believe that the depth of your spirituality is revealed by the ways in which you attain and eat your food, create fire, how gently you walk in Nature…” In the latter part of his book, Boyle gets pragmatic by describing the many methods of meeting one’s needs for free, from labor and materials to housing, food, water, heating, transportation, clothing, communication, education, and health care (an especially tricky area, like land acquisition and use). He lists the growing number of free-sources like Freecycle, Freegle, Couchsurfing, and dumpster diving (called “skipping” in the UK), as well as the moneyless (but not technically free) exchange programs like Help Exchange, WWOOFing, time banking, and Local Exchange Trading Systems. Especially inspiring is the gifting network founded by Boyle himself, Freeconomy, which is based on unconditional giving—no credits, no recordkeeping, simply a cadre of kind souls offering over 500,000 free services in over 160 countries throughout the world.

I should note that Boyle is not the only brave person to quit currency in recent decades. In fact, his moneyless stint falls far short of that of Daniel Suelo (living free since 2000), Jurgen Wagner (since 1990), and the woman known as Peace Pilgrim, who spent 28 years walking across the US and in fact served as an inspiration to Boyle. Whether viewed as misfits or mythical heroes, these people show us that a moneyless life is indeed a viable option. It might not be everyone’s cup of wild nettle tea, but for those of you who feel called to live without lucre, I encourage you to read The Moneyless Manifesto, forego the cold comfort of cash, and be the change you wish to see.

The following article was originally published on Reality Sandwich sometime in mid October, 2012.
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Why isn’t everyone dressed in amazing costumes and giving away food, gifts, back rubs, heartfelt hugs and compliments? Why can’t I ride around on a giant mechanical octopus that shoots flames? How come nobody is dancing in the streets? Why do I have to *pay* for things? Why are people doing things they don’t really want to do? Why is the default world so ridiculous, in the worst kind of way?

These were the burning questions that filled my mind and appeared on my Facebook page after my return from Black Rock City (more specifically, after unpacking, sleeping for what seemed like three days straight, and gradually recovering my capacity to think in a semi-logical fashion). I was having a hard time making sense of the default world and understanding why I should participate in it. Indeed, it struck me as exceptionally weird that anyone would want to take part in the mind-numbing, soul-crushing, earth-ravaging, life-denying enterprise called modern techno-industrial culture. Inasmuch as I was able to maintain a consistent thought, it was this: What, exactly, is the point of it all?

It didn’t help that my period of reintegration and recovery coincided with the Democratic National Convention, at which speaker after speaker spouted the same jingoistic affirmations of American exceptionalism and promises of economic revival. Although several folks acknowledged global warming as genuine threat, nobody seemed to understand that on a planet with finite resources, economic growth is the not the solution but the problem. As Chris Hedges points out in a recent article, to believe in continued economic expansion amidst continued ecological failure is to embrace a delusion—a pathological one, I might add.

The closest anyone came to speaking truth to power was when the economist and senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren asserted that the system is rigged. She was referring, of course, to the unfair advantages enjoyed by the 1% through tax cuts and loopholes, corporate welfare and subsidies, full-time lobbyists, and the ability to purchase politicians and thus undermine our supposedly democratic system. But despite Warren’s candor—not to mention the sincerity of the FLOTUS, the warm vegan glow of Bill Clinton, and the usual confidence of the POTUS—no mention was made of capitalism as a whole being a rigged game that inevitably increases economic disparity between the haves and have-nots. Doubtless this would have quieted the chants of “USA!” and “Four More Years!” from those who seem to want a bigger slice of the American pie rather than a brand new recipe.

Then there was this CNN video clip of Tea Party chairperson Amy Kremer, who tried desperately to make the case that Obama doesn’t love America “the way we do” (the “we” apparently referred to conservative WASPs, although Kremer refused to clarify). Her central claim was that Obama has “a global…a global…oh, what’s the word?” She seemed to be groping for the word “perspective,” although she might have preferred the sinister-sounding term “agenda.” Eventually Kremer clarified that this one-world outlook of Obama represents an evil that cannot be tolerated. Evidently Romney and the Tea Partiers inhabit an alternate reality in which there exist multiple worlds—presumably red and blue, American and un-American, Christian and anti-Christian, freedom-loving and freedom-hating, etc. This myriad worlds notion might be laughable if it weren’t just a variation on the theme advanced by both parties that the earth can and must provide unlimited economic growth for the benefit of a single species—a small percentage of our species at that.

Apart from being delusional, proponents of this idea never bother to address the fundamental question posed earlier: What’s the point? Why is unlimited growth a good thing? The obvious answer that it can only be beneficial inasmuch as it contributes to human happiness, while the obvious realization is that it obviously isn’t working (and not just because the working class isn’t working). One need not consult the depressing statistics on depression; signs of unhappiness are painfully apparent everywhere. Indeed one of the biggest challenges of my return from Burning Man was precisely this realization that very few people in the default world seemed genuinely happy.

Not that I was particularly surprised, having experienced this aspect of culture shock many times now, whether post-Burn, after each of many voyages abroad, or in the wake of various inner journeys. In fact, my contention is that the current global system—let’s call it Calvinist corporate capitalism—not only fails to foster human happiness, it is actively antagonistic to it. If you happen to be happy, it isn’t because of the system but despite it; you have managed to avoid being indoctrinated and infected with the addictive grasping after more and more—more money, more possessions, more power, more pleasure, more praise. Perhaps you’ve learned that the “pursuit of happiness” is an oxymoron, that contentment (not bland “good enoughness” but scintillating joy) is not something to chase after but to allow. It does not exist somewhere in the future and cannot be found out on the ever-receding horizon of “progress,” but can only happen in the here and now.

Despite all the recent books and expensive seminars on the subject, happiness is actually quite simple. The primary components are decent health, a sense of security, of community, and of meaning. Unfortunately, all of these basic human aspirations are thwarted by global capitalism, which feeds us GMO and junk food, promotes warfare and competition above human welfare and peace, converts natural wealth into “goods” and connection into commodity (i.e. “services”), and defines individual purpose as the capacity to consume or otherwise contribute to GDP. By contrast, Burning Man strengthens community and trust through cooperation and gifting. By providing a break from corporate culture and advertising, it allows us to see that the American dream is indeed an empty fantasy, mainly because life is more about giving than getting. Last but certainly not least, Burning Man reminds us that nothing is permanent.

So if you’ve been wondering why all those dusty people in all those Facebook pictures are smiling like there’s no tomorrow, it’s because in that world—dare I say the real world—there isn’t.