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Sacred Economics and Beyond
February 7, 2012 12:16 AM   Subscribe

"It’s a very ancient idea that the universe runs by the principles of the gift...in fact the purpose for our existence, the reason why we’re here, is to give." Writer Charles Eisenstein speaks on his book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition.
posted by velvet winter (41 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is absolutely mind blowing. I feel like I have been waiting to read this my entire life.
posted by AstroTurf at 2:58 AM on February 7, 2012


Sounds not a million miles from Lewis Hyde's The Gift
posted by robself at 3:09 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, by Marcel Mauss - We were made to read this in our beginning sociology class. Not much passes for potlatch these days-
posted by newdaddy at 3:28 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you accept the basic premise, that "the money system has contributed to alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth"...

[at the end of a passage about how the community was before being destroyed by the money system] ... A hundred years ago it was one of the village grandmothers who knew a lot about herbs. And you didn’t pay for that. People didn’t used to pay for clothing or housing either. Everyone knew how to build a house.

You also had the routine and institutionalised marginalisation of everyone who wasn't a non-poor white male of the right ethnic and religious background. So often, that community was used as a weapon to lynch, beat, ostracise and/or enslave minorities. Everyone knew how to build a house. They also knew how to tie a noose.

You could depart further from the rose tint to examine the efficacy of the village grandmothers' treatment for polio, the average life expectancy in 1912, the level of education of the unemployed, etc. etc.

Of course, Eisenstein isn't expressing an essentially a Neo-Confederate view of the world, but rather using ye olde community as a set of positive aspirations for a new model of the economy. But I see nothing in the speech acknowledging how a new, presumably localised model of economic growth (based on the stuff about LETSystems) is going to avoid the downsides that come with local forms of organisation.
posted by kithrater at 3:34 AM on February 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


Have not read this (yet)*, but I like Eisenstein. The Ascent of Humanity is a good read, as are his various essays. I particularly liked this one and this one. They're sort of polar opposites, which I guess is part of the appeal.

*Looking up that link made me see that he's been posting chapters of Sacred Economics as essays for a bit now, so I guess I have been exposed to it a little. So that's neat.
posted by byanyothername at 4:44 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Everyone knew how to build a house.

And I know how to rebuild a carburetor, but it's certainly preferable to have someone else do it for me, someone with whom I don't need to have a personal relationship and someone with whom I don't have to trade "gifts" but instead accepts all major credit cards.
posted by three blind mice at 4:51 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


But I see nothing in the speech acknowledging how a new, presumably localised model of economic growth (based on the stuff about LETSystems) is going to avoid the downsides that come with local forms of organisation.

Yeah. Mourning a loss of community actually resonates pretty deeply with me, and not having broadband in the past few years has really driven the nail in that internet communities aren't good substitutes, but I belong to several marginalized groups and have gotten more than a taste of what it's like to be Different in a small, isolated community. I think that small autonomous tribes are probably what make humans happiest, but we can't "go back" to that and if we ever end up living that way again, we'll take with us memories of having tried to stretch ourselves into a global perspective. I think the ideal is learning how to stretch our concept and self identification with small tribes into a global worldview, but that's something that will take thousands of years if it's even possible.
posted by byanyothername at 4:55 AM on February 7, 2012


The charitable industry, however, has distorted community and the hyperlocal economy among those peoples where the aid & development industries tend to be most active. Everyone's passively waiting for the next handout instead of demonstrating any initiative or enterprise.

There's also research on the effect of remittances on the recipients and the subsequent loss of productivity on the economies of the nations from which the global diaspora (who send money home) emerge.

First hand, my experience has most recently been one which has very clearly shown the effects of the training/conditioning by generations of NGOs and expat aid workers on local peoples. "Oh you look different from us, I'm poor and in need of money, just ignore that pickup truck, that shop and that huge solar panel on the roof"
posted by infini at 5:09 AM on February 7, 2012


He makes a lot of interesting observations, but I think that the loss of community has a lot more to television and ridiculous commutes have a lot more to do with loss of community than money. Instead of talking over the back fence or meeting friends down at the corner pub/Lodge/Elks/VFW people sit inside by themselves and watch American Idol.

I get what he's trying to say, but I don't think it quite hits the mark. If humanity actually somehow converts to a "gift based economy" there will be still be all those clever, predatory human beings who brought us things like the subprime mortgage crisis. They'll figure out a way to game the system and accumulate wealth by brokering "gifts" and skimming off the top.
posted by usonian at 5:25 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Um, yeah. that's "but I think that the loss of community has more to do with television and ridiculous commutes than money."
posted by usonian at 5:26 AM on February 7, 2012


Everyone knew how to build a house. They also knew how to tie a noose.

The causative arrow couldn't be clearer!
posted by DU at 5:30 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


The causative arrow couldn't be clearer!

I used to be able to turn a phrase like you, then I took an arrow in the knee.
posted by kithrater at 5:34 AM on February 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


From one of the links:

> it just so happens that gratitude is the foundation of sacred economics.

One of the internet's favorite happiness researchers, Martin Seligman, is constantly harping on the idea that if you can express more gratitude to the people you know you are almost certainly going to be a happier person. Thank you velvet winter for posting this. Also, could somebody (please!) page Graeber? It might be amusing as all hell to see him explain how Eisenstein has it totally wrong.
posted by bukvich at 6:11 AM on February 7, 2012


"...if you give away all your money and worldly possessions and still do not find enlightenment? Well then the cosmic joy is on you"
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 6:18 AM on February 7, 2012


I think that the loss of community has more to do with television and ridiculous commutes than money.

I think these are symptoms, rather than causes, and have a lot to do with money, actually. I don't have time to flesh this out, but I think erosion of community is something systemic, not something dependent on personal choices. People stay plugged into their media bubble instead of socializing in person because: 1) it's cheaper than going out, 2) it's a way of broadcasting your own social status, 3) there's often not anywhere to go out to, 4) overworking on unfulfilling things makes you tired, 5) US society is so freaking artificial I can't blame anyone for not wanting to participate in it...

...and any other number of complex, interrelated reasons.

I totally agree that a gift economy is something that could still be exploited by clever-but-short-sighted people, though. I don't really think a gift economy is ideal, necessarily, but it highlights a different sort of take on the world where you have a personal relationship with everyone you deal with, and if something isn't worth having a personal relationship over ("It's just a carburetor," say), then it forces you to reflect on whether that's a necessary or beneficial addition to your life or not.
posted by byanyothername at 6:39 AM on February 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


A closely-knit group of people bound together by ties of mutual obligation and recriprocity.

Oh. Like the Mafia.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:58 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


From the other end of the wormhole, I can see why the author would romanticize this, in the context of his own environment where ties have loosened in communities so much so that they are 'bedroom communities' but where these are still in practice, the ties that bind you can be restrictive and misery making in their own way. What is needed is a balance. But such ideals are better left to writers and dreamers.
posted by infini at 7:12 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Better get busy planting some obs.

You don't want to be like Idle Jack the scratcher, do you?
 
posted by Herodios at 7:13 AM on February 7, 2012


BitterOldPunk: "A closely-knit group of people bound together by ties of mutual obligation and recriprocity.

Oh. Like the Mafia.
"

I misread that as MeFia
posted by symbioid at 7:14 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Eisenstein is awesome! I first read his stuff on his blog over at Reality Sandwich and I've loved just about everything I've seen. Haven't been able to keep up with the Sacred Economics after he started releasing really frequently, but I always look forward to reading another chapter. Thanks for posting. I definitely look to his work for answers to the question of where to go from here with the economy.
posted by nTeleKy at 7:15 AM on February 7, 2012


It’s a very ancient idea that the universe runs by the principles of the gift...

The gift of soul-shattering madness and the unmaking of man expressed through bloody-tongued lunacy, yes. Nice of the author to paint it in a positive light, tho.
posted by FatherDagon at 7:18 AM on February 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


Could someone please elaborate on how, exactly, it would be possible to "exploit" a gift economy? Even if you do end up with a bunch of extra resources somehow, what are you going to do with them apart from use them or give them away?
posted by nTeleKy at 7:23 AM on February 7, 2012


David Graeber, who is one of the closest readers of Mauss out there, points out that one of Mauss' most overlooked points is that there were far more than one way in which societies and reciprocity worked, and that the gift was only one of these ways.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:33 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also worth pointing out: a lot of gift economies function to establish hierarchies of possession. You give a gift that your opponent cannot match, he is now indebted to you in an existential manner.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:35 AM on February 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


outlandishmarxist you might be interested in the anecdote from medieval Iceland that William Ian Miller uses in the opening of his book Humiliation. A generations-long royal family feud started over the issue of an overly extravagant gift.
posted by bukvich at 7:49 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oooh, I nominate Mefia to be the new Mefites!
(Also I get to start this debate again)
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:56 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


But I see nothing in the speech acknowledging how a new, presumably localised model of economic growth (based on the stuff about LETSystems) is going to avoid the downsides that come with local forms of organisation.

Since my previous point seems to have been misunderstood, let me try again: What on earth makes you think that adopting an economic system from N years ago means we also have adopt the social justice system of that same time? Will we also be forced to wear funny hats and talk ye olde englishe? Believe the Sun revolves around the Earth?

Also, we already have ways to avoid the downsides of local forms of organization and they have nothing to do with our monetary exchange system.
posted by DU at 8:20 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


“If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another.”
Tenzin Gyatso, The 14th Dalai Lama
posted by caddis at 8:28 AM on February 7, 2012


AstroTurf: This is absolutely mind blowing. I feel like I have been waiting to read this my entire life.

Me too. I first learned about his work in early 2011 through a video of one of his talks, Living in the Gift, which inspired me greatly. His book Sacred Economics was released in hard copy in July 2011; I eagerly devoured it, and have re-read some of the chapters nine or ten times. My mind has been thoroughly blown indeed. Eisenstein is brilliant in a way that is unusual for scholarly non-fiction writers: his writing style combines intellectual rigor, exceptional emotional intelligence, systems philosophy, radicalism, and spiritual depth. I expect I’ll be re-reading the book for years. It's the sort of book I wish I'd written myself.

Here's a quote I love from Chapter 14:
"Unfortunately, the term leisure carries connotations of frivolity and dissipation that are inconsistent with the urgent needs of the planet and its people as the age turns. There is a vast amount of important work to be done, work that is consistent with degrowth because it won't necessarily produce salable product. There are forests to replant, sick people to care for, an entire planet to be healed. I think we are going to be very busy. We are going to work hard doing deeply meaningful things that no longer must fight upstream against the flow of money, the imperative of growth. Yet I also believe we will have more true leisure -- the experience of the abundance of time -- than we do today. The scarcity of time is one reason we overconsume, attempting to compensate for the loss of this most primal of all wealth. Time is life. To be truly rich is to have sovereignty over our own time."
I find myself reading that last line over and over again. To be truly rich is to have sovereignty over our own time. Yes indeed!

According to his events page, he'll be speaking in my city (Portland, OR) in March, and I'm very much looking forward to attending his talk.
posted by velvet winter at 8:43 AM on February 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't know enough to back either side on this question, but DU could you elaborate a little?

I took kithrater's comment as pointing out that the local forms of organization themselves enable and perhaps even incentivize social justice norms that are similar to the problematic ones that historically accompanied them. I don't think a society hypothetically organized in this way would have to give up scientific knowledge or forget the civil rights progress of the last 100 years, but how does it, for example, pay for expensive medical treatments? How are the rights of minorities (whether minority opinions, ethnic groups, or whatever) protected? Do we keep the current justice system? How do we pay for that?
posted by Wretch729 at 10:42 AM on February 7, 2012


(Possibly the answer to my questions is to go read the darn book.)
posted by Wretch729 at 10:44 AM on February 7, 2012


I didn't take kithrater's comment that way. I took it as "here's a good thing but here's a bad thing and look how nearby in time they are! you better stay away from that good thing." By this logic, we shouldn't read Dickens because he was writing at a time when child labor exploitation (among many other crimes) were rampant.
posted by DU at 11:12 AM on February 7, 2012


This is the most woo-woo bullshit.

Mainstream economics...[considers it] good that we have a system based on scarcity, that creates anxiety, that kind of forces you to work.

This is like saying that mainstream physics considers gravity good, in that it forces you to consume so much calcium to create such strong bones. It completely misrepresents the fact that scarcity is a force of nature, a basically immutable law which we have to overcome. Economics prescribes remedies to the problem of scarcity; it does not laud it.

If you’re a stranger in a city and you’re walking around and you ask directions, people are happy to give you directions. They’ll even go out of their way. Why is that? One reason is that in our current society, we have so few opportunities to give.

What cities does this man live in? I have friends who will routinely give people wrong directions in Boston (which is not pleasant to navigate) because they hate tourists. The fact is that we want to give gifts to people who are like us (native Bostonians) and we want to punish people who aren't (tourists). That's why someone would build a library for Occupy without being asked, but would spit on a Wall St. banker before giving him a nickel he was short.

Then he goes on to conflate money with interest-bearing loans and the inflation of capital with actual economic growth. This essay has about 20 different basic economic errors. It is infuriatingly bad.
posted by TypographicalError at 12:35 PM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Typo, the US Northeast is infamously hostile in this regard but cities like London and New Orleans are not. My wife once hailed a passing pedestrian in London to ask for directions, and the total stranger turned around and walked six blocks back the way she had come to make sure my wife got where she was going, before the stranger went on her way.

Which is to say, it may not be as fundamental as he thinks, but there are definitely cultures that express themselves as he describes.
posted by localroger at 1:21 PM on February 7, 2012


DU: Since my previous point seems to have been misunderstood, let me try again: What on earth makes you think that adopting an economic system from N years ago means we also have adopt the social justice system of that same time? Will we also be forced to wear funny hats and talk ye olde englishe? Believe the Sun revolves around the Earth

Apologies - was typing up a last reposte for the night via phone.

DU: I took [kithrater's comment] as "here's a good thing but here's a bad thing and look how nearby in time they are! you better stay away from that good thing."

kithrater: Of course, Eisenstein isn't expressing an essentially a Neo-Confederate view of the world, but rather using ye olde community as a set of positive aspirations for a new model of the economy. But I see nothing in the speech acknowledging how a new, presumably localised model of economic growth (based on the stuff about LETSystems) is going to avoid the downsides that come with local forms of organisation.

Wretch729 is expressing more clearly the point I was trying to make - that the local forms of organization themselves enable and perhaps even incentivize social justice norms that are similar to the problematic ones that historically accompanied them.
posted by kithrater at 1:26 PM on February 7, 2012


I have friends who will routinely give people wrong directions in Boston (which is not pleasant to navigate) because they hate tourists.

Your friends are assholes.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:12 PM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]



Your friends are assholes.

In Maine, it's spelled massholes.
 
posted by Herodios at 4:35 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Since my previous point seems to have been misunderstood, let me try again: What on earth makes you think that adopting an economic system from N years ago means we also have adopt the social justice system of that same time? Will we also be forced to wear funny hats and talk ye olde englishe? Believe the Sun revolves around the Earth?

Incidentally, if you look at the clearest example of community-minded, intensely localized economies in the United States at least, funny hats and non-standard English are actually pretty on the mark.

As for believing the Sun revolves around the Earth, I'd love to see you figure out how to run advanced science projects on a gift economy. I'm sure it's possible, but hella unlikely. The closest thing I'm aware of runs on centuries of tithes (or the interest thence derived, rather).

Eisenstein's whole point is that economic systems have profound effects on the rest of the way a society works. All that people in this thread have been pointing out is that there's plenty of evidence that the effects of the economic system Eisenstein posits - as it plays out in the real world - are more varied and of more questionable attractiveness than the joyous warm fuzzies he seems to posit.

I'm constantly amused by people who posit that the reason we're not all happy and contented with the world is anything as late to the game as money, capitalism, government, religion - when we're descended from apes that demonstrate all the hallmarks of human social dysfunction, including isolation, ostracism, hierarchies, selective control of resources, rewarding of loyalty and punishment of dissent, all without the benefit of any of those advanced human social constructs. There's plenty we can do to improve our own lives and societies; laying all the bad on a single aspect of modern human society doesn't do anything but make us feel better while the big apes hog all the bananas and sex.

It's not about finding out what's separating us from living "naturally," it's about accepting that we are naturally not the best at finding happiness or inspiring it in others, and figuring out how to work around that.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:30 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Two quick responses to AdamCSnider

I'd love to see you figure out how to run advanced science projects on a gift economy.

Now I don't know Eisenstein, but if you mean to suggest that "advanced science projects" run on a pure market basis, that's untrue. Lewis Hyde goes so far as to characterize science as a "gift economy," and while I might not go that far it's not hard to see what he's getting at. Peer review, for instance, is based on systems of non-specific reciprocity; one researcher gives her time to review the work of another with the expectation that somewhere along the line she in turn will be helped. And then there are other non-market relations: patronage systems (foundations and various other charitable givers as well as patronage within labs and departments), friendships, the fictive kinship of the advisor-student relationship. These economies are themselves embedded in the wider economy, of course, with funding flowing from government and corporations and scientists being paid salaries and so forth--but that doesn't mean it's all about the market.

This point doesn't just go for science: the "market" or the "real economy" is not some fully separate sphere from society, and gift relationships of various sorts (from parent to child, friend to friend, country to country and otherwise) still make up a huge part of all our lives. Mauss himself used his essay on the gift to talk about the need for reforms in social welfare provision, and his legacy lives on in contemporary anarchist and other intellectual circles, as this article by (briefly Mefi's own) David Graeber discusses.

when we're descended from apes (pointing to a book on chimps by Frans de Waal)

On a technical point: we are not descended from chimps; we are both of us species descended from a common ancestor. Of course I take your point that violence and unhappiness are not unique to us poor, post-lapsarian moderns and I agree that if Eisenstein is claiming otherwise, he's wearing blinders. But I'm always bothered by this appeal to chimps or any other single primate as some signal of our true, underlying human nature. Quoting Jonathan Marks (via this fascinating summary of a forum on human nature):

To imagine that we are nothing but apes, and to find human nature there (e.g., de Waal 2005; Wrangham and Peterson 1996), actually constitutes a denial of evolution. We evolved; get over it. In a classic midcentury synthesis, George Gaylord Simpson explained the problem with “nothing-butism”: “Such statements are not only untrue but also vicious for they deliberately lead astray enquiry as to what man really is and so distort our whole comprehension of ourselves” (1949:283). Evolution is the production of difference and novelty, and you are not your ancestors. (Marks 2010: 513)

And to get more technical: why choose chimps? From a piece by Jason Antrosio:

Primatology reveals there is no single primate behavior pattern at the base of human evolution.

Chimpanzees and bonobos are equally related to the most recent common ancestor with human beings. Chimpanzee and bonobo behavior varies, both between species and within different groups. There are yet other patterns with gorillas, gibbons, and orangutans. Moreover, these species have been evolving for the 6-12 million years since splitting off from the lines that would lead to hominids. Any contemporary behavior may have evolved independently and cannot be assumed to be a common ancestral model. “As it turns out, there is not one generalized ‘primate pattern’ found in nature but a variety of patterns with some common themes” (MacKinnon and Fuentes 2005:87).

posted by col_pogo at 2:35 AM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Now I don't know Eisenstein, but if you mean to suggest that "advanced science projects" run on a pure market basis, that's untrue.

Unless I'm greatly misunderstanding Eisenstein, his position isn't anything so simple as anti-capitalism - he seems to view money and social systems which involve massive resource accumulation among small groups as inherently bad, whether they are market based or otherwise (he'd probably not be any fonder of state communism, for example). I in turn am well aware that basic science research is not solely or even predominately market-driven, my point is that it requires significant economies of scale, especially at this point, when expanding the frontiers of science requires orbital telescopes and particle accelerators, and that this in turn implies large accumulations of disparate resources and expertise that are hard if not impossible to manage and organize without some sort of intermediary symbol of value (i.e. money).

gift relationships of various sorts (from parent to child, friend to friend, country to country and otherwise) still make up a huge part of all our lives.

Nor am I suggesting that gift economies don't exist in the world we live in today or that they aren't important. I'm saying that there are limits to what they and the small communities they need to function best (or at all) can do on their own, even in the more sophisticated forms posited by Eisenstein - and that those limits fall far short of what we reasonably expect in terms of quality of life (including not just material goods but also such vital insubstantials as social justice and tolerance).

Good point regarding the primate descent thing.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:20 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just discovered this and wanted to post a link before this thread closes:

Sacred Economics with Charles Eisenstein - A Short Film
posted by velvet winter at 1:20 PM on March 1, 2012


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