Sacred Economics with Charles Eisenstein [Interview]

Charles Eisenstein is the author of two of my all time favorite books, The Ascent of Humanity and Sacred Economics. He graduated from Yale with a degree in Philosophy and Mathematics and now teaches at Goddard College. He is a well known speaker on the topics of culture, spirituality, economics, gifting, the money system and community currencies.

Mira Luna: What got you interested in Economics?

Charles Eisenstein: While researching for Ascent of Humanity and looking into the origin of the all the crises on Earth, when you go down a few levels, you always find money. The money system is deeply implicated obviously in everything that's happening. For a while I believed money is the problem, but money is built on deeper causes - the defining myths of civilization. Still money is deep down and at the core.

I read economic philosophy by a myriad of well known economists, including Keynes, Henry George, and other more mainstream economists. I found that they were all contradictory. I didn't have a degree in Economics, but all these PhD Economists disagreed with each other so I thought a fresh perspective was needed to shift and expand the dialogue. I bring philosophy, history, spirituality, psychology, and nuts and bolts economics into it.

On a personal level I went through a phase where I was deeply in debt and went bankrupt and then broke. I was sleeping at other people's houses with my kids for a while and hit bottom. It became obvious that what I was doing wasn't working. That got me interested in the psychology of money. Money embodies unconscious beliefs in the nature of reality, self and the world like: more for you is less for me, we live in a finite universe with scarce resources, we are separate from each other, we are fundamentally in competition.

Mira: What are the myths underlying the money system?

Charles: There are two main myths the story of the self and the story of the people that each culture has to answer the basic questions of existence. Our culture says you are a discrete separate being, a bubble of psychology inside a robot of flesh among other discrete, separate beings. That's why more for me is less for you. Biology says you are the expression of your DNA that drives you to maximize reproductive self-interest. Economics says that again you are an economic actor seeking maximize financial self-interest. Religion says you a soul encased in flesh separate from all the other souls encased in flesh. Physics says you are a machine made up moving parts which are themselves made up of moving parts down to subatomic particles...These are operating according to forces so you live in a universe of force. There are bigger forces out there than you so you must master as much force as you can and protect yourself from external forces. This again leads to a paradigm of competition and control. That's the story of the self.

It's related to the story of the people, which I call the Ascent of Humanity, which is that we started off as helpless and ignorant and then thanks to our big brains we developed technology and began to conquer and transcend nature's limitations, harness natural forces, and someday our control will be complete and we will conquer the universe, defeat death, eliminate all disease, create paradise, to become separate from and rise above nature. These myths are becoming obsolete. They are no longer true for us or resonating with us. We are resonating more with an interconnected self. We are one with each other, we want to help each other and serve each other, to give to each other and the planet. And we don't believe deep in our hearts more for you is less for me.

Mira: Have you seen this reflected in other cultures?

Charles: I looked at a lot of other cultures that lived in what you would call a gift economy. In a gift culture it's actually true that more for you is more for me, because you don't accumulate. Accumulation doesn't give you any social benefit. Benefits come from generosity. If you give a lot to other people, you become a big man, an influential person. Kings were always giving large gifts and holding lavish feasts. In a hunter-gatherer societies, when you killed big game, you shared it among everyone in a big feast. It's not self-sacrificing behavior because when you do that, everyone else is going to invite you to their feast too. Even if they weren't at your feast, if they saw that you are someone that invites lots of people to feasts, they are going to want to invite you too. Generosity is contagious. If you see someone being really generous, it warms your heart and you want to give to them even though you didn't receive their gift directly.

Mali's gift economy, which still prevails today
Mali's gift economy, which still prevails today

Money is the opposite of the gift now. If you give more you get less. With an interest-bearing loan, I am going to make you give back and here's how much you have to give back including interest so that's not really a gift. That's a flaw of the money system that it pays to accumulate. How can we change money to embody the good things about gift economies and so that it's in alignment with the new stories of the connected self and instead of conquering nature, co-creating with nature? What if money was designed to be an extension of ecology rather than exception to it? In my book I go into the nitty gritty of how money could be changed to not be the enemy of all the beautiful things we want to do.

The more you become integrated with and dependent on the money system, the more you believe in the old myths of the separate self, competition, etc. which makes you more controlling and anxious. A lot of the people I know who are the most anxious about money are wealthy people.

I am not advocating abandoning money, but transforming it. Money is a way to make gifts flow. In an old village, you didn't need money because you knew everybody and what they needed. There were stories being told and you could see who was hurting and they were part of your circle.

Mira: How would you want money to change?

Charles: There are 7 suggestions in the book on how to transform money and the economy. One is demurrage or negative interest, which was tried several times in history, most famously in Woergl, Austria in 1932. The theory was described by economists Silvio Gesell and Irving Fisher and in practice often involves the use of stamps. In one example, you'd pay for the stamp tax with $.05 once a month to keep the money active. In this sense, money decays and it resists accumulation. You'd rather lend it out at zero interest than keep it and lose money. The modern version of this would be to have negative interest on deposits in the Federal Reserve to encourage banks to lend it out. By having money, you won't get richer, you'll get poorer, so you have to give it away, buy useful things, invest in your community. The money is forced to circulate. In my book I go through how this would still allow for capital, large projects...it all works. Keynes thought it was a really good idea, mentioning it twice in his general theory with uncharacteristic praise. Willem Buiter the chief economist of Citibank has written about it.

This replicates gift dynamics by making accumulation a burden and therefore enabling gifts to flow more freely. I advocate also community currencies to shrink the realm of bank debt money. In the future much more will be done on a gift basis, which is the only way you can have community. Community is woven from gifts and stories.

Worgl, Austria's demurrage stamp scrip from 1932
Worgl, Austria's demurrage stamp scrip from 1932

Mira: What steps should we take to get there?

Charles: Timebanking- migrating things that shouldn't be in the money system, back into the community gift economy. Sharing things and reducing the need for bank debt money locally. The money system is in crisis because of debt. They temporarily ease it by shifting the debt around, bailing out the banks and pushing the problem into the future at which point it will be even worse. Soon there will be a greater financial crisis. Do we bail out the financial institutions and make good their bets or do we let everything fall apart including wiping out grandma's savings account and uncle Joe's pension? We could bail them out but with negative interest cash. They wouldn't be able to get richer by holding onto money. The only way you would be able to get rich is by creating things that people actually need and want and doing it well so there is still room for entrepreneurism. Although there will be less incentive to focus on money. The decay of money emulates nature. Everything decays in nature, rats each your food.

Also, money should be backed by things in the commons and there should be a basic social wage for everyone so nobody has to fear for their survival and creativity can flourish. I go into other possible changes we can make to the economy in my book.

Mira: Money in computers though is a strange mutation of nature. It never dies and it grows exponentially. It is like cancer, a violation of nature. What are the obstacles we face on the way to the new economy?

Charles: There are psychological habits. When I think of giving to someone a voice pops up - “can I afford to give, what about me, what's going to happen to me?” People who step in to the gift don't end up in desperate circumstances. The story of the self says it's insane to give and give up control because the world is filled with ruthless self-maximizers. You need to protect yourself from them. They aren't going to give anything back. The separate self creates envy – more fame for you is less for me. But often that's not true. Competition can be useful, but like money, competition has exceeded it's proper bounds.

It can be awkward to be around someone with a lot of money. You might question who will pick up the tab? There's a suspicion of what do they want from me. And on my side I am thinking what can I get from this person? Or I might seek out the most rich or influential person in the room to find out what what I can get. It's a form of control. But the universe doesn't work like that and often a person with no money can open all kinds of doors with their gifts that create other unplanned or unsought gifts. Guilt can be a form of force, which represents rejection and creates anxiety. Social movements would do a lot better without guilt.

Mira: Often people respond better when you are not trying to get something from them. That allows them the space to give. You mentioned that in many other cultures people are happier with less. What do they have that we don't?

Charles: Connection and intimacy due to a more local scale of life and economy. You know the person who's growing your food and making your clothes, building your house. You don't pay strangers to do this work. You have to be nice to your neighbors to get what you need. In our culture, it's the opposite – everyone is thinking, “I don't need you.” In Amish communities you really need your friends and you really know your neighbors. I don't know anything about the lives about my neighbors. We don't know each others' stories. Automobile culture and television culture separates people. Everywhere you go, if you have money, you don't need anybody. Any place is the same so you are not tied to any place. We used to be much more connected to the land and all the stories of the land and local people. But we don't know those stories anymore so we feel disconnected. And that is good for business because we have an endless hunger to feed this tiny hungry separate self in phony compensation for the loss of connection. But people know underneath that we are connected and all beings are tied to “me”. So more for you is more for me. Then you are at home in the universe and you don't have to add to the separate self. But we don't have that so we are unhappy and afraid.

Mira: How do you think death plays into this? Because economics is partly about meeting survival needs and fear comes up when we might not get our needs met. Also, if you think you are disconnected, when you die, you just die as your separate self.

Charles: People who have near death experiences, spiritual experiences, they find they are more than a skin encapsulated ego and they become less afraid. We project survival anxiety onto “primitive” people, but that's a projection of our own condition. We have a money system that creates scarcity in every realm of life. But in fact, if you read anthropology or go to parts of the world that are less monetized, they are not anxious all the time. Hunter-gatherers are extremely relaxed. They have no worry for the future and work less than 20 hours a week working and the rest of the time hanging out, talking, singing, dancing, having parties, going on walkabouts. That 20 hours a week working is also more fun working with others and socializing the whole time with kids running around. Their life is not about avoiding death.

Watercolor by James Swan of the Klallam tribe of Port Townsend, with one of the chief's wives distributing potlatch.
Watercolor by James Swan of the Klallam tribe of Port Townsend, with one of the chief's wives distributing potlatch.

Mira: If people aren't afraid of death, then they can give gifts more freely. When they give gifts they feel more interconnected, which makes them less afraid to die and so on in a positive cycle. What steps can we take towards this?

Charles: If you feel at home in the universe you think, “I will be fine. I'll be taken care of.” The interconnected self still exists today, but there are conflicting messages from the institutions around us and people might think we are crazy. So it's a struggle to live this truth today. It's much easier if we are receiving affirmation from others. The heart says yes, the mind says no. If someone decides to quit their job to do permaculture, you can affirm that decision instead of asking them how their going to pay for their health insurance. They want to hear the universe will take care of them. Stories are very powerful. Do you have a story you like to tell?

Mira: I tell my story of how I almost died of an illness for lack of money for health care, but instead of focusing on getting more money, I created the Timebank so people could share more gifts.

Charles: There was a woman at occupy Philly that I started talking to that is disabled and overweight. She didn't have any money for food so a fellow occupier gave her back the $9 he owed her. Did she use half for a meal today and save half for tomorrow? No, she bought a meal for herself and another homeless woman who had a baby. She gave half her entire net worth to charity not knowing where her next meal was going to come from. I find stories like that to be much more effective in changing minds that the number of statistics on homeless people, because they can see themselves in it. If she's not worried about money, maybe I don't need to be so tight.

There was a drunk man that staggered into an Occupy camp who worked at Goldman Sachs saying he was one of the 1%. But he was desperately miserable at work and using drugs. He ended up sharing that he secretly respects Occupy. He has a sacred story that he can tell. I think my next book will be about the power of story.

Mira: It sounds like we need to be telling better stories. Through my struggles with illness I found that people want to give and the more I asked for what I needed, the more my community grew and grew stronger. People also seemed more relaxed and safe knowing that they can ask for things from me in return since I've asked. They know I’d give back when they needed me. Before I got sick, I had money so I never asked anyone for anything, I had a lot of independence and none of my relationships were close. If your life depends on someone and you are trusting them, there is a lot of intimacy there.

Charles: That’s the kind of wealth that fires cannot burn and thieves cannot steal.

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