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It’s time to put money out of its misery

Why are discussions about poverty so often held in luxurious surroundings? Perhaps it’s easier to think that way, without any poor people in the room to muddy the proceedings. Think Bellagio, for example, the Rockefeller Foundation’s villa on Lake Como, or Pocantico Hills in upstate New York (another Rockefeller bequest), or Schloss Leopoldskron, the baroque palace that houses the Salzburg Global Seminars where I found myself last week.

The subject of the seminar was “value(s) for money,” a play on words that was designed to question the current fascination with ‘cost-effective impact’ in the worlds of philanthropy and foreign aid. Instead of obsessing over narrow and subjective ‘value for money’ calculations, the organizers wanted to interrogate the values perpetuated by those who finance social change: things like equality of opportunity versus equality of outcomes, or democracy as opposed to decision-making by elites.

Money talks, as the saying goes, but what language is it speaking? Social justice, free-market economics, global charity, “Pax Americana,” women’s rights - all of these ideas were represented in the room. But underlying them was a much deeper question that kept on re-surfacing: is money part of the problem or part of the solution?

That’s the question that lies at the heart of our series on the role of money in the transformation of society.

As a point of departure, all the contributors to this series doubt whether money can be used in truly radical ways within the constraints of the highly-unequal, debt-laden societies that mark out contemporary capitalism. At the macro level, economies remain trapped in an endless spiral of mounting debt, unsustainable growth, rising inequality and concentrated power.

As Thomas Greco shows, more trees must be cut down, more minerals mined, more oil pumped, and more workers squeezed and exploited in order to earn the profits required to pay the interest on the loans that financed previous expansions in production. But there’s never enough money in circulation to enable all these debts to be paid, so more must be created, stoking the cycle afresh. “More growth produces more disparities to scale,” as Steve Consilvio puts it in his discussion of the need for “buy low, sell low” economics.   

Even when attempts are made to change the values and principles that underpin this system, they can be easily coerced or co-opted by traditional, commercial interests. Hence, Avis buys Zipcar as part of a trend towards the re-privatization of the sharing economy, and of other innovations that are trying to break free from the constraints of existing financial and economic structures.

At the micro level these patterns are mirrored in the operations of funding agencies and NGOs, which tend to replicate the same problems at a smaller scale: inequality, centralized control, and competition. Those who possess large amounts of money are able to shape social change in their own image, at least to some extent, leaving those who lack resources to fight among themselves for a few more ‘crumbs from the rich man’s table.’ “Together we bargain”, as the old social movement saying puts it, “divided we beg.”

These processes underpin the creeping “corporatization” of philanthropy and the not-for-profit sector, which “weakens activism and empowers big business” by watering down what NGOs and foundations see as viable in terms of their influence and action - “narrowing the limits of the possible.” These days there’s little separation between philanthropy and business, which delights in ‘giving with one hand while taking with the other.’ Carlos Slim is an example - “advertising himself as a philanthropist while siphoning off billions of dollars through his almost complete control of Mexico’s telecommunications system.”

Overall then, money has become a negative and divisive force for anyone who dreams of societies transformed, as opposed to lightly and slightly reformed.

Isn’t it time we put money out of its misery, and used it to build solidarity, joy and shared prosperity instead?

To do this we have break free from the limitations of money as we know it, and embark on a different journey - to invent new systems and institutions that start from another set of premises about ownership, value and control. To ‘think outside the box,’ it helps to be outside the box. Otherwise - as with Zipcar and Avis - experiments and innovations quickly find themselves re-captured.

That’s what the ideas and examples represented in this series are all trying to do. “No-interest” financial systems and new forms of currency, for example, could help counter the trend towards ever-greater debt, inflation, and wealth concentration. Mechanisms already exist to facilitate the exchange of value without using money at all, like the WIR Economic Circle Cooperative in Switzerland which enables moneyless trading among its members using a system of “credit clearing.”

By reducing the pressure to maximize private profits it’s possible to raise the quality of life by lowering the cost of living for each other, without the inflationary pressures caused by conventional economics. Non-profit businesses must become the norm rather than the exception. “Sharing more and owning less” is going to be crucial to all these innovations, as Adam Parsons puts it. 

Shared decision-making is limited inside most NGOs and foundations, but it’s not impossible. Red Umbrella and Edge Fund are two examples of a new breed of funders that don’t rely on inherited wealth, and who put decision-making power in the hands of those who sit at the sharp end of injustice and exploitation, whether they are sex workers, immigrants, low-income families, Roma or people with disabilities.

If that’s too much to countenance, then funders can at least use their money to put poor people in the driving seat of their own social change. Jennifer and Peter Buffet’s description of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida provides a good example.

These innovations provide a double boost to social transformation: they get more money to people who are pursuing deep-rooted social change; and they begin to transform relationships surrounding money in the process. Their impact may seem small, but they are not insignificant in the ways they contribute to the power reversals that the transformation of society demands.

In multiplying these experiments, two priorities stand out. The first is to increase democratic ownership and control over money, finance, and decision-making over funding. This is the only way to break the power of elites who have little interest in transforming an economic and political system that has placed them at the top of society. “If money is power, then control over money has to be democratized,” as Nadia van der Linde puts it.

That, of course, is going to be fought tooth and nail every step of the way, which is why a second priority is needed: loosening the psychic attraction of money which comes from personal attachment (‘it’s mine, so do what I say’). It’s that orientation that can turn philanthropy into another form of domination. Edge Fund member Stephen Jones could speak for all of us when he says “there's still so much to do to achieve the hardest part (for me at least), which is to keep surrendering my own privilege and inbuilt sense of entitlement.”

Small business owner Steve Consilvio is already heading in this direction, by learning to live on less while actually improving his quality of life.

In all these different ways, money becomes a source of personal fulfillment and of social justice, of unity and solidarity and joy. Transforming our relationship to money is both a political and a deeply personal challenge.

Back at the Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg, we’re treated to a grand tour that includes the staircase where the von Trapp children sang in “The Sound of Music,” parts of which were filmed here. My mind wanders to the lyrics of “My Favorite Things” - “warm woolen mittens and whiskers on kittens.” I begin to miss my cat. There’s no mention of money in this list, which isn’t surprising given the ways it’s become entangled with inequality and greed.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Money remains a central fact of life, potentially a currency for social transformation as well as a barrier or a blockage - both ‘beauty and the beast.’ As this series has shown, money can be separated from the values and attitudes that prevent it from being used in liberating ways.

It may never be one of ‘our favorite things,’ but money doesn’t have to make us miserable. It’s up, or down, to us.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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