Sunday, March 18, 2012

Consider the Lilies

I am not attached loyally to this or that religion. I grew up in the Christian West though, and English is my mother-tongue, so with that combination am therefore something of a de-facto Church of England Christian in my deeper sensibilities, slightly—due to my family’s Scottish bent—to the protestant side. So for all my pontificating here at Econosophy, despite my passionate (an appropriate word, don’t you think?) support of demurrage money and guaranteed income, I believe in hard work. Reflexively. On the other hand, the part of my being which ponders and contemplates deeply, appreciates simple yet rich lazing around, simple interbeing, with no protestant notions of productivity or contribution, no fear or fawning respect of The Great They, muddying the water. I can’t really do that kind of lazing around for very long without feeling guilty, but I respect it nonetheless. In that vein, I have recently been considering the lilies.
“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.”
Jesus of Nazareth
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.

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.”
Old Testament
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 still
For idle hands to do.”
Isaac Watts
Idle 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!).

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.

12 comments:

Malagodi said...

Context, my brother.

The 'consider the lilies of the field' quotation [Matthew 6:28] is part of the sermon on the mount, advice given to the masses concerning their everyday behavior.

The passage in question begins with another famous quotation "no man can serve two masters… you cannot serve [or in this case 'attend to'] both God and wealth… [paraphrasing] you will end up loving one and hating the other."

Jesus continues "do not worry for your life, what you will eat, drink, or wear [etc.]" He is addressing here not the issue of work, per se, but of worry. Toil, in this case, does not mean simply the expenditure of energy in the ongoing process of life, but the slavery and spiritual imprisonment caused by obsession with "work", which in the end is caused by irrational(?)fear of destitution. Unless of course you're in the situation of actual slavery, in which case there's probably not much to be done about it.

[Mathew 6:31] "Therefore do not worry or say 'what will we eat, or what will we drink, or with what will we be clothed. … therefore do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will look after itself. Sufficient for each day is its own trouble."

This is not about work, it's about fear.

Malagodi said...

Also, there's this quote by Robert Ashley that is a favorite of mine:
"Every economic system ever invented was just a scheme to get men to work. The women have to work anyway."

Toby said...

All true of course, but my post is indeed about work (among other things), which does link in with fear, via faith, very strongly. I watched a talk given by Astra Taylor recently, given on unschooling. She was allowed to grow up with zero schooling by her rad parents, though she 'freely' chose to attend school two or so times, though only very briefly. And she and her siblings have turned out alright. One of the questions she puts out there is this; are humans good or bad? In other words, do we need to be corralled, kept busy, kept 'good' via some Hobbesian threat of force, or can we be left alone to self-organise creatively and constructively without chaos and 'anarchy' breaking out, and the whole of civilisation going to pot? Can we trust ourselves, do we have faith in ourselves and nature? Do we even need to serve masters in that dualistic way addressed in the broader context of the sermon? Why is there that dualism? Does not service imply work? And what about reward for that service? The wages of sin are death, right? And to what degree ought work to be toil, or pleasure, or easy? What is work, how ought we to define it? It's all interconnected, relates to fear and faith, a sense of abundance, or scarcity, to value, dessert, punishment, and so on. These are enormous topics.

In the end it was not my intention to stay true to large sections of the Bible; I barely know the Bible. Think of me as an ignorant magpie pecking up interesting shiny bits from a wide forest floor, then weaving them into my nest. Today it was fragments from the Bible. So this:

"Toil, in this case, does not mean simply the expenditure of energy in the ongoing process of life, but the slavery and spiritual imprisonment caused by obsession with "work", which in the end is caused by irrational(?)fear of destitution."

more or less encapsulates what I'm digging into, without accessing the Bible in a way requiring too much extra study of me. I'm not drawn to religious texts generally speaking, and won't put too much effort into familiarising myself with the details. Nevertheless, I think what I typed here holds together as a cohesive musing.

I do love that Ashley quote. If you watch the Eisenstein video I link to, you'll see a take on a new type of economic thinking which develops for us the new spaces in which work and play, reward and punishment emerge in less binary, less dualistic guises. And in writing that new story we explore new territory whose details, as you yourself have pointed out to me repeatedly, must remain blurred for some time yet. What seems clear to me though, is that our notions of work, pleasure, reward, etc., are undergoing their most profound change ever. To be dramatic about it.

Toby said...

Toil, in this case, does not mean simply the expenditure of energy in the ongoing process of life"

Why not? (I forgot to ask.) I mean, I think the sermon is wrong-headed, proceeds from a false premise, yet still has juice to offer us, even out of context. ;-)

Why is 'toil' a uniquely human condition? Is it absurd to say lilies toil? If it is absurd, why? What is effortless? I don't really have answers to these questions, but I think that way we have of seeing nature as somehow effortless whereas human economic work is toil and strife is very outdated and inaccurate. That's what I'm getting at. And perhaps too that we are all slaves, and all free, and that neither concept really means anything distinct. Perhaps too that no distinction can be sustained, can withstand a certain amount of scrutiny, and that's a great irony, a Yin-Yang unity. The extreme of analysis unearths endless nebulousness. And at the widest possible birds eye view of everything the detail is so sharp all of reality is crystal clear.

Man am I a hippie tonight!

Malagodi said...

Did you say both that you didn't know (and weren't really interested in) the contextual details of your primary quotation and also that the sermon was wrong-headed? Perhaps I read that wrong.

I wonder if you would approach the Lotus or Diamond Sutras with the same predisposition.

Obviously the word 'toil' can have many applications. In this case I was trying to show that the subject of the passage you cite was not work, but worry. If you choose to use the quotation 'as a shiny object' for some other purpose, that's your prerogative, of course. I was only pointing out that that shiny object was once part of a larger, rather coherent and interesting discourse quite different than your present application of it.

But make of it what you will.

Debra said...

Nice post, Toby.
I have no objections to your citing the Sermon on the Mount.
Although my impatience with our Christian heritage and its perversion occasionally makes me want to shout, I can not deny that Jesus's language is ten million times more interesting and poetic than what we are currently capable of saying...
Some comments on work. I like to repeat that in my opinion, things have become very very dramatic due to our rather... fanatical desire to impose the work=money, and money=work equation, to the exclusion of all other ways of seeing work, and money too, by the way. The EQUATION is the problem, thus, not even the financial speculation which, in its own natural ? way, is a way "we" have devised to work ourselves out of the work=money strangle hold.
In French, the word "travail", "work" is etymologically linked to childbirth. Women.. WORK in childbirth, and that is still the very first definition of the word "travail" in French.
Interesting, huh ?
Although this etymology has disappeared in English, it WAS there, and that is all we need to know...
I think that maybe that little lichen in subzero temperatures that manages to implant itself and reproduce is probably working much harder than the lilies of the field ? But who am I to say ? That depends on where the lilies are, right ?
Every day I sit down and work very hard at my piano for several hours.
The word "work" is very appropriate, because there is physical effort, concentration, etc, even though I am not working for an employer, and not for money, either...
Cheers.

Toby said...

Hi Stephen,

"Did you say both that you didn't know (and weren't really interested in) the contextual details of your primary quotation and also that the sermon was wrong-headed? Perhaps I read that wrong."

I did say that. The Bible and most thinking today, and thinking prior to the Bible from what I can make out from "The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" was/is dualistic, sees an immortal soul trapped for a while in a mortal, fleshy body. I see that as wrong-headed, without having to go into the details, and I clearly detect that dualism in the sermon, even in that single, 'isolated' sentence. I read the whole sermon (again, perhaps the last time was over thirty years ago), and saw in it what I saw, and responded to a fragment of it as I did. I know what you were pointing out, but I was not addressing the sermon in detail, nor is it in any way the meat of this post, despite the title. I'm looking at guaranteed income and negative interest money as they relate to our very old and stubborn notions of work and reward.


Hi Debbie,

"In French, the word "travail", "work" is etymologically linked to childbirth. Women.. WORK in childbirth, and that is still the very first definition of the word "travail" in French."

That is interesting, and gets at what I'm exploring here, that nature is always at work, even the 'idle' stretches of meadow or forest or pond, or lichen, or whatever else. As I said, life and death are work. And I'm not against distinctions, but I am for exposing unhelpful and unhealthy perspectives which glue us to a failing way of thinking. And of course there is much hard work which is not financially rewarded, which people everywhere engage in, regularly, but what interests or puzzles me is why the word 'hard' is appropriate for human effort, but not perhaps for other parts of nature. Do ants work hard? Do sloths not work hard? Can you only work hard when you'd rather be doing something else? Thus, suppressing desire to do Y to accomplish X, for either money or proficiency at a difficult task or because a clean house is important, that's hard work. No other animal does that, so we tend to see that as fighting nature, fighting our 'lazy' urges, and call those efforts hard work.

Debra said...

Toby...
If you watch "Spring Watch" on British T.V., as I would very much like to do, but I am really too lazy to get an antenna, and I object to T.V. anyway, you will see how the birds work particularly HARD to keep their houses clean, building their nests, for example.
Many species teach the young how to position their arses so they will defecate outside the nest..
Pretty.. SOPHISTICATED, don't you think ? especially as I just spent about 15 minutes not working particularly hard at picking up litter around our local pond...
WE are pretty good at fouling our nests, I think, something that I don't think the birds do...
To return to the Sermon on the Mount..
I don't particularly see Jesus's temptations in the direction of dualism in it.
When Jesus said something along the lines of "he who is not for me, is against me" (where ? I'm so dismal at locating quotes...), yes well, that was rather dualistic, but...
Promoting both/and, and nuanced thought does not spare us the necessity of trying to recognize those areas of the world experience where perhaps dualistic thought IS appropriate.
After all, we DO have that expression either/or, and it is not going to go away any time soon...

Toby said...

You think the birds work hard in a grudging way though, wishing they were doing something else? I think that's an unanswerable question really, probably not really worth asking, but it gets at the false idea that humans need a Hobbesian monopoly on force so that civilisation can run smoothly on. I don't want to get too bogged down in the tricky projections and semantics of how hard or lazily birds or ants work, because that leads nowhere, fast. What was and is important to me is simply eking out different angles on the 'naturalness' of work, that 'work' arises from within, things get done in an emergent way, unstoppably really, as reactions, yes, but such that the brute hand of the dictator or state is not as necessary (at all?) as opponents of guaranteed income think. In short, my focus here is guaranteed income and negative interest money.

Ditto The Bible. I really don't want to get bogged down in a theological debate. It's not my strength, nor my point in this post, nor my interest generally. I used a shallow acquaintance with a Biblical quote as a springboard into my own metaphorical musings, and I've introduced the obvious duality of immortal soul as distinct and separate from mortal flesh (a notion I refer to as wrong-headed), a clear dualism which pervades many religions, not only Christianity.

Perhaps I should leave the Bible to others; it seems to land one in hot water, one way or the other.

Debra said...

With or without the Bible... the water is heating up really fast these days.
It's the Genesis quote that seems to get us continually stuck in the idea that if it's grudingly done, then... it's work.

Jason (ReportsFromEarth) said...

Great post Toby. The Eisenstein video you linked to was also one of the best summaries on the money / collapse issue I have seen. Thankyou.

I also hope you don't mind that I have added two quotes of you in this post into the quote database on my blog:

1st quote: "Unless and until its supporting cultural soil changes profoundly enough, economics will continue to be the gatekeeper of hard work, productivity and Endless Growth."

2nd quote: "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."

I have borrowed these 2 quotes because you have expressed this complex and important issue brilliantly in a simple, compact yet accurate manner - much better than I ever did... and I have been trying for while.

Toby said...

Agreed, Debbie, that's more or less how I see it, in the famous nutshell.

Hi Jason,

thank you for saying that, it means a lot to me. It's been my goal for some time now to express complex matters in quite easy to understand ways, so it is especially rewarding to hear from you that my 'hard work' has born some fruit!