An interview with Charles Eisenstein: “Something in your heart knows that this is what life is supposed to be about”
About 4 weeks ago, I had the honour of interviewing Charles Eisenstein, author of ‘Sacred Economics’ while he was in the UK visiting Schumacher College to teach a course there for a week. I had to admit before we began the interview that I have yet to read his book, in spite of the number of people I know who have insisted that I really ought to. I decided to see this as an opportunity though, given that most people who will be reading this won’t have read it either, thereby sharing my starting point of near-complete ignorance. I think it kind of works. He was charming and thoughtful, and you can either hear the podcast of the interview below, or read the transcript below that.
For people who are unfamiliar with your work on sacred economics, what is it? How would you describe it to people? What’s the main thrust of it?
The book is about how to make money as sacred as everything else in the universe. Some people think, well, everything’s sacred, and it should be, but if there’s one thing that isn’t today it’s money, and we experience that in our daily lives just making personal decisions. Like for me at least, my impulse is for generosity or to follow my passion, or to do something right even though it takes much longer. Money seems to block these impulses and to reward the things I really don’t want to do, the things that are really hurting the planet, that might be convenient, or the things that my rational mind calculates will be better for my self-interest.
Money is on the side of those things and not on the side of the beautiful things that I want to do. On a social level, too, I look into almost any problem, any terrible thing, like the prison industrial complex or the war on drugs or deforestation and climate change and I say ‘why is that happening?’ Then I take it down a few levels and it’s always money. So if anything isn’t sacred it’s money, and the question is why, because money is just an agreement that gives value to symbols really.
Physically it’s just bits and computers, so we’ve created an agreement that aligns money with pretty much everything people call evil, but why should we have agreed on that? The book goes into the nature of that agreement and describes what exactly it is about money that makes it into something unholy, and then says – ok, but what different agreements could we have that align with the things that are becoming sacred to us today? Like ecological healing, the preservation of indigenous cultures, all the things that we’re beginning to value today. In a way, you could say that money has always been sacred because in the past it’s been aligned with growth, the growth of the human realm, and the conquest of nature. That was sacred to us many years ago, but it’s not any more, so money needs to change.
You use the term ‘the gift economy’ a lot to describe, as I understand it, what we need to be moving towards instead. What does the gift economy look like for you, what does that mean? Does that mean that we just swap stuff all the time?
No, it’s not about barter actually. Economists have this fantasy that once upon a time people used barter and then money was more convenient so they switched to money, that all along we’ve been trying to maximise our self-interest and take advantage of somebody else and get the best deal, but that’s a fantasy projection of the present on to the past. The gift economy for me means two things actually, one is the shrinkage of the money economy so that a lot of things that are quantified today and commodified and exchanged with money will re-enter the gift realm.
Things like the care of children, the preparation of food, to some extent the building of houses, the creation of entertainment, all of these things used to be part of a gift economy, done mostly within families or small communities. A lot of these things should be done by people that know you intimately – life’s a lot richer when your music is mostly something that you get together and sing, rather than something you listen to on your ipod. So that’s part of it, the shrinkage of the money realm.
I’m not talking about the abolition of money, I’m talking about the transformation of money, so that it takes on the properties of gift. One of those would be that you no longer maintain wealth, status and security by keeping a lot of it, in a gift culture the more you gave the richer you were. The wealthy person was the generous person. Another aspect of it would be to be part of the circle of the gift as in ecology where the waste of any creature is a food for the next. Obviously, this is not a new insight, but human economy has to join the circle of ecology and our money system has to encourage that. That’s the other main aspect of gift economics as applied to money.
What seems to be happening in society now is a lot of the things that you’re talking about there in terms of the privatisation of childcare and the professionalisation of childcare and of care for the elderly…basically picking up on all the social inter-dependencies that we seem to be losing all over the place because we become more and more selfish and running faster and faster just to stand still. At the moment it feels like people are too busy to look after their aged relatives and they don’t have the time, they probably don’t have the skills either, but ultimately they don’t have the empathy or the ability to put themselves to one side for a while and care for someone who brought them into the world and cared for them for 25 years or whatever. So how do we start to rebuild the altruism that needs to underpin a shift like that?
I think there are many ways to rebuild it, and different people engage with it on different levels, like some people are engaging on the level of rebuilding empathy would be hopeless but for the fact that people are so miserable in that state of complete monetisation. I think what’s happened is they’ve been robbed, they’ve been robbed of their skills, robbed of their humanity, they’ve been robbed of their empathy, and that robbery leaves us, and I’m including myself in this too, in pain, lonely, hurting, and that pain is so omnipresent that we consider it normal, we consider it normal to hurt.
That’s why we get bored – boredom is the pain that comes from not having anything between you and yourself. A primitive person wasn’t bored, a primitive person was totally happy to literally watch the grass grow, and animals are to. We have this need, this hunger, which we can temporarily assuage maybe by eating a lot, or by buying things, or all of these other things, and that’s addictive, because it doesn’t meet the real need, and at some point it creates a crisis on a personal level, and on a collective level we have the same crisis, and so people reach that point of crisis where it stops working and the addictions stop working, and then things fall apart.
Then they have access to or openness to the recovery of empathy, the recovery of skills, the recovery of the spirit of the gift. Those are the moments that I look for in my interactions with people, and I think a lot of people come to my work and the work of many people in this movement, they’ve reached that point, so I think it’s a natural evolution of crisis breakdown and healing or rebirth or something like that.
I think that social-economic activism is important, but I also think that what you might call spiritual activism that connect people to their ageing parents, or bring forgiveness into relationships or non-judgement, things like that, I think those are equally important, even more important, more foundational. I think that people are recognising that the economic crisis goes all the way to the bottom of the way we are, the way we relate in this culture, in this civilisation. It’s not just an economic crisis.
Sharon Astyk wrote recently, questioning Occupy’s “we are the 99%” slogan, arguing that in the US, even the bottom 2% are probably within the global 1%. What is ‘enough’ and how do we determine what ‘enough’ is?
I just want to say something first about that 2%, and it depends how you measure it. Economists measure it in terms of income, and I think that’s really dangerous because to some extent your income is a measure of how much you’ve left the gift economy and entered the money economy. You could have a subsistence peasant somewhere who still lives in a community, maybe still lives in a place that’s relatively unscathed by modernity, and he makes less than 2 dollars a day – poor guy – but actually he knows how to build his own house and he and his community get together and build their own houses, and grow their own food and make their own clothes and sing their own songs, and he might have a life that’s richer than even the 1% in America.
Sometimes I get into conversations with commentators on my essays, they’re like ‘how can you advocate degrowth when the third world masses need to be lifted out of poverty?’ Are we actually lifting them out of poverty or are we creating a new kind of poverty that is actually to our advantage, or at least to our supposed advantage? I always want to be careful – when we say so-and-so’s very poor, are we just projecting our own conception of wealth on to them and then improving them? Well you’re developing them, and we’re developed, it’s ‘Destination Us’. I just wanted to make that disclaimer.
If what you really crave in your soul is to be serenaded by your lover, but all you have available is digital downloads, then no amount of those will be enough. If what you really crave I to walk outside and know the name of every hill, and to know the name of every birdsong that you hear, and to know the smell of the soil, but what you have available to you is product, then no matter how much product you buy, you’re never going to have enough.
This has been the problem with money for a long time, it was recognised even by the Ancient Greeks. In my book I quote one of the Ancient Greek playwrights, he was puzzled by it. He says “money is a strange thing. The man who has 30 drachmas wants 60, the man who has 60 wants 100″. The wanting of it has no limit, which is different from the other things that men want – wine, women, food, of all of these things we know satiety, but not money.
Maybe you’ve seen that study where they took people with a net worth of 25 million dollars or more and asked them – are you financially secure? And the majority said no. They asked how much would you need to be financially secure? They all named a figure, as just said, about 25% more than they already had, 25 million, 50 million, 100 million – it didn’t matter. Because anything could happen – I could think of a scenario where your 50 million dollar fortune becomes worthless, the stock market could crash, you know, bond defaults, medical emergency … better make it 200 million.
In terms of what Transition groups do, a lot of the work that Transition groups are doing at the moment is based around creating new economies in the place where they live. Here in Totnes we’re doing a lot of work on regenerating the local economy and mapping how it works, and looking at where the key opportunities to bring in new things are, and how to stimulate a culture of entrepreneurs and this kind of thing. What would what you bring to all this, how might that help to inform the thinking and the approach we take to make the economy here more resilient?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot and experimenting with it, and running into some of the difficulties too. One of the things I was experimenting with was gift circles, where you get together with a group of people locally and it’s kind of like a more hands-on version of a Time Bank where you go around the circle and everybody says something that they need, then you go round again and everyone says something they would like to give, and as you go around someone might say they need a lawnmower, then someone else might say ‘hey, I have an extra one in my garage’ and so these ties form and needs can get met without money and bonds get created.
But people from a privileged background generally have the sense that “we don’t really need to be doing this because we could just buy this stuff” and so we’re doing it out of altruism, or out of idealism. I think there’s a lot in the local economy movement that mirrors that. You don’t see people in the ghetto becoming advocates for the local economy, you don’t hear those voices very often. It’s being done out of this idealism. That means that when people’s idealism flags, and they run up against the busyness of their lives, and the pressure and stress that’s caused by being immersed in a money world, then they give up on it a little bit. I think it takes a lot of work to build these new institutions and to build new habits. A lot of it is just habit.
One of the mantras that’d been going through my mind recently is peak oil won’t save us. More generally I mistrust the idea that we’re going to have to make this transition, we’re going to be forced to make this transition. I think that on the one hand the old world is becoming less and less liveable, but that there’s still always a choice that we have to make, just like an alcoholic – the state of alcoholism becomes more and more intolerable but you can always still choose to keep drinking, there’s always a way, maybe you’ve already lost your house, but you could break into your in-laws place and steal a television. You can always find some way to keep it going, but it’s always at a higher cost, to you health, to your relationships, and I think the same is true of our society.
So t0 bring it back to the local economy movement, I do think the impetus for the transition has to come from recognising that it’s just not true, that little voice that says ‘we don’t really need this’. Because one of the things that we need are these things that can’t be measured, that are qualitative and can only be obtained through local relationships. That said, I’m a little suspicious of attempts to build community just for the sake of community.
I think that certainly one way community arises is people depending on each other to survive, but people who go to intentional communities and say, well, we’re going to survive together, even though we don’t really need to, I think there’s something a little artificial about that and the other way to build community is to devote ourselves to a common purpose, to create something together. There’s a lot to be created together – there are wetlands to be restored, there are incinerators to be stopped and any situation that brings people’s gifts together towards a common purpose will create all the kinds of relationships that Transition wants to create.
One of the things that’s been interesting here in Totnes is Transition Streets, which is the idea that you get out on your street and you get together 6 to 10 households in each street, then you meet 7 times at each other’s houses. The first time you look at energy, the second week you look at water, transport, food, and at the end of each week you undertake to do certain things before you meet up again. On average there are about 680 households in Totnes that have done that, and on average they cut their carbon by about 1.3 tonnes a year and saved themselves £5-600 a year.
There was a qualitative study that was done about what was their experience, what they got out of it. By far the main thing they got out of it was meeting the neighbours, community, feeling more connected to where they are, new relationships, feeling part that they hadn’t done before. There was one of those big word cloud things created of all their answers and peak oil and climate change and economics didn’t register - it was all just ‘neighbours’, ‘connected’, ‘friendships’, which I thought was really interesting. So with the gift economy, might it be that we actually address all the things we’ve been talking about in terms of peak oil and climate change, but just not actually explicitly focussing on those things?
I think it’s interesting in the scenario you just described with the streets and looking at energy, so the thing that they got out of it was the connection to the community. But if they’d just got together in their houses and talked about those things and done nothing more than have conversations they probably wouldn’t have that sense of community. They have to have a sense that we’re here to do something, not just to talk about it.
Yeah. In the States a lot of it is really – let’s get together and talk about how right we are. So I do think there has to be something like that.
When they’re actually doing something that pushes them a bit.
Yeah, creating something together. Because when you create something then you have to step aside, because something other than yourself becomes paramount, it’s this thing you want to create. When you let go of that ego self then real connection is possible. Like if you’ve been in a band or in a sports team, you feel a more authentic bond…at least that’s what I experienced when I was on the track team in college, even if I didn’t like some of the guys, there’s still a real bond, because we were dedicated to something greater than ourselves together.
At the moment in, for example Italy or Spain, where the economy is going down the tubes very quickly, there’s youth unemployment of 50%, lots of young people just shell-shocked by the whole thing really, wondering what do we create out of this? What would your advice be to someone who’s 20 and living in Spain and just finished college, wondering where on earth they go from here?
My advice would be to take the opportunity to step into the gift. In the old paradigm , employment was about how to make a living, and in the new paradigm employment is about giving of your gifts. When the old paradigm was still working and you could still find a job, it was more difficult to step out of it, you were getting this reward. But today even if you do your best to live in the old paradigm, you still won’t get a job. So you might as well re-orient towards ‘what am I here to give?’ and that’s really something, even if you have a job, everybody wants to do something magnificent with their lives.
People who have a job have that feeling, well I wasn’t put on earth to do this, I wasn’t put on earth to sweep floors or wash dishes, or shift bits around. That’s not saying that those things are bad, but if it’s your career, day in day out, doing something that doesn’t make your heart sing, then everyone I’ve ever met is going to think, well, I was made for something else. In gift culture, the gift you want to give comes first.
As Lewis Hine puts it, you give out and create an emptiness that draws gifts to you and so they come after. You don’t necessarily know how they’ll come back to you, but your focus is on giving. I think that actually the unemployment is giving us a little nudge to do that, and say ‘well, ok, it’s not working anyway so I might as well focus on what I can give, I want to be useful at least’.
I don’t think that unemployment is really going to go away. In a certain sense, Marx talked about this, classical economists talked about this, that technology makes us more and more productive. In theory, we should be working less and less. Futurists were predicting that in 1800, ‘the machine can do the work of a thousand men, therefore, very soon, we will have to work a thousandth as hard’. But instead, we chose to consume a thousand times more and work just as hard.
That choice is no longer available to us, so we’re going to have to work less for money. I think the world would be better off if we all worked less altogether, like hunter-gatherers who worked 20 hours a week. Isn’t it funny that we have to work harder than they did with all this technology? I think that there’s so much that needs to get done today. There’s so much beautiful work out there, more than we can do, the amount of healing that has to happen, the lonely elderly people, the children who need love and attention. There’s a lot of beautiful things that people could do with their unemployment.
But how do people gift that and pay the rent?
Well how do they pay the rent without gifting anything when they still can’t find a job?
They take welfare from the government, one of the stipulations of which is that they don’t do any other work.
Yeah, but they can do volunteer work?
I’m all for taking welfare from the government. I think it’s a great idea if you can manage it, you know, jump through whatever hoops you can, go through the motions and not take too much time, just as a practical matter. Do that in a perfunctory way and spend the rest of your time doing things that are beautiful to you and don’t feel guilty about it. One of the pieces of Sacred Economics’s basic income, or social dividend, is everyone gets a payment that covers very basic living expenses so that work no longer becomes a matter of survival.
You mentioned just now that people should do the thing that’s most meaningful to them or most alive to them. Is there a distinction in Sacred Economics between things that are self-focussed, ‘I’m going to pursue my own spiritual blah blah blah’, something that’s very much about yourself, and things with a more altruistic motivation, ‘I’m going to dedicate my time to the service of others and helping others’. Is there a distinction between those things?
I think people go through phases. There is a time maybe to turn inward, to lick your wounds, to be alone, but at some point if someone’s done that then they naturally turn towards service. It’s in our nature to want to serve, I believe that. Neo-classical economics doesn’t believe that. They say that human beings are fundamentally motivated to maximise their self-interest, and they draw from biology which in the old paradigm said that our genes programme us to maximise our reproductive self-interest. So basically, Rob, if you could, you would just sit around and do nothing for society, that’s what you really want to do, but you know that if you did that you wouldn’t make a living. That’s why you’ve created this Transition movement, because you’re forced to contribute, otherwise you wouldn’t survive.
I think that’s ridiculous, I mean, just try it! Go home and say, I’m not going to do anything. It’s going to be intolerable. People naturally want to give, so it is a different view of human nature. Just sitting and meditating – what happens? Well pretty soon you realise your inter-connectedness with all beings and you desire to do actions that benefit all beings. It’s not like this really tough Bodhisattva vow, I’m going to sacrifice my bliss in order to serve other beings. Everyone’s experienced the joy of giving. Even if someone asks you for directions from out of town, they ask you for directions and you say ‘ yeah, you go down there and you turn right…’ they walk off and you feel good. Where does that come from? You never see them again and you don’t get any benefits, nobody saw you so selflessly giving directions, you just feel good.
I asked if people had any questions, and one of the questions I was asked to bring was “in the gift economy, how do I get a piano?”, i.e. something that needs to be made by skilled people, something that’s using resources, and something on which people can express so beautifully and creatively. Where do the pianos come from?
Sure, pianos, computers, all kinds of things. That’s just part of the misunderstanding, people think that I’m talking about a world without money. Maybe some day money will have evolved to a point where we don’t even recognise it as money. But basically I think that there has to be a way to co-ordinate human labour over vast social distances. Just like in a body how if a cell needs something it puts out a signalling molecule, and that molecule attracts the resources that it needs.
So I think in the social body, money is one of the signalling molecules that says – pianos are needed. And the signal is that people are willing to pay for pianos, so pianos are needed. So if I’m a craftsman, and I’m wondering whether to make a piano, or I’m an entrepreneur and I want to do something, I want to make something – shall I make pianos or shall I make pogo-sticks? Maybe there’s more money in the pianos. That’s maybe a signal from society that that’s maybe what we want. In a way money already works like that, that’s the theory of it.
The problem is that it’s become divorced from things that people actually want and need. I explained how that happened in the book with the way money’s created as debt, so it’s not about eliminating money, it’s about transforming its nature, for example, no longer creating it as debt
Is there a challenge talking about Sacred Economics that our culture has largely moved away from having a sense of the sacred, that we’re surrounded by stuff which is banal and fleeting and based on the instant gratification of desires and the senses, that in our daily lives we very rarely encounter anything sacred? I suppose too often ‘sacred’ was associated with some sort of formal religion which is largely being shunted out of the picture in many societies. So for a generation who’ve grown up with largely no notion of sacred or not really exposed to that notion, how do we rediscover that?
That’s related to the need for crisis and breakdown. If someone has never experienced the sacred then it’s all theoretical, and they won’t know what it is they’re missing from their lives. All they know is that they’re hungry for something, they don’t know what.
What does it mean to you?
When I speak about it I try to invoke it through pointing out some of the experiences that give me a sense of the sacred and that give other people a sense of the sacred. I think most people have experienced those moments. It could be a moment in nature or with a child, witnessing a birth or witnessing a death with a dying loved one, those special moments…or maybe even listening to a band play and there’s that moment of connection, where the band is really singing to you somehow, and not just putting on a performance. I think during these experiences when your real needs are being met, shopping is the farthest thing from your mind.
It seems absurd, and wouldn’t you like more of that? Or those moments of authentic intimate communication with somebody. So I’ll invoke that and say something in your heart knows that this is what life is supposed to be about.
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