Sacred Economics: Chapter 19, Nonaccumulation

The following chapter is from Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition, available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. Return to the Sacred Economics content page here.

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. –John Maynard Keynes

Be charitable before wealth makes thee covetous. –Sir Thomas Browne


I have in this book articulated a conception of wealth as flow rather than accumulation. This is not a new idea: wealth only became an accumulation with the rise of agricultural civilization. Because hunter-gatherers are, with very few exceptions, nomadic, possessions are a literal burden to them. But the farmer is sedentary; moreover, the farmer’s livelihood depends on the storage of food, especially in the case of grain-based agriculture. Hunter-gatherers stayed at populations beneath the carrying capacity of the unmodified ecosystem; in times of drought or flooding, they could easily move and adapt. Not so the farmer. For the farmer, seven lean years could easily follow seven fat ones, which meant that the best security was to keep large stores of food. To accumulate and store was the best form of security; from it flowed wealth, status, and many of the habits we identify today as virtues: thrift, sacrifice, saving for a rainy day, good work habits, industriousness, and diligence.

Living without food storage, hunter-gatherers worked no harder than necessary to meet immediate needs and enjoyed long periods of leisure. The farmer’s leisure comes with a bit of guilt — he could be working a little harder, storing up a little more just in case. On the farm, there is always something that needs to be done. We have today inherited and taken to an extreme the attitudes of the farmer, including the agricultural definition of wealth. (1) After agriculture, these attitudes (work ethic, sacrifice of present for future, accumulation, and control) reached their next level of expression in the Age of the Machine (2), which led to accumulations of wealth undreamed of by the richest pharaoh.

And today we are in the so-called Information Age, which is yet another intensification of the same attitudes, and which has seen an accumulation of wealth, a contrasting poverty, and an alienation from the natural world far exceeding any precedent. Many observers have pointed out that each such “age” is succeeding (actually overlaying) the last at an exponentially accelerating pace. Very roughly speaking, the age of agriculture lasted three millennia, the age of industry three centuries, the information age three decades. (3) Now, many sense, we are on the verge of a singularity: perhaps a flurry of new ages telescoped into years, months, days, and then a transition into a wholly new era, something unknowable and qualitatively different from anything before. We may not know much about it yet, but one thing that is certain about the coming Age of Reunion is that humanity will no longer pretend exemption from nature’s laws.

Certainly, accumulation is one of the violations of natural law that is inconsistent with the new human being and her relationship to nature. Hoarding resources beyond an individual’s capacity to consume them is not unknown in nature, but it is rare, and many types of food storage (e.g., squirrels sequestering nuts) have other explanations.(4) Generally speaking, natural systems are characterized by resource flow, not accumulation. In an animal, cells do not store more than a few seconds’ worth of sugar but trust in the ongoing supply of their universe, the body.

Evolutionary biologists offer two explanations of resource hoarding in humans from the perspective of genetic determinism. The first is that it offers security, a survival advantage. Hunter-gatherers and other species would do it too, the argument goes, but they generally lack the means. The second explanation is that the ostentatious accumulation and consumption of resources are a kind of mating display. As biologist Walter K. Dodds puts it,

Display of control over, and consumption of, resources by men and women escalates (contributes to luxury fever) because the excess appropriation of resources is a sexually selected characteristic. In a society in which standard of living is high, it is not enough simply to display control of sufficient resources to ensure the survival of you, your mate, and your offspring. You must control more resources than are controlled by your potential competitors for mates to make an attractive display. (5)

Granted the premises of conventional genetic theory (a critique of which is beyond the scope of this book), the logic seems airtight. Quite subtly, though, the argument is based on circular reasoning that projects our present environment of scarcity, anxiety, and competition onto nature. The ability to accumulate and overconsume resources is a reproductive advantage only in a society where resources are not equitably shared. In a gift-based sharing culture, the welfare of your children does not depend so much on whether your mate is a great hunter or prolific gatherer. Moreover, anthropological evidence contradicts Dodds’s thesis. Consistently, hunter-gatherers and primitive agriculturalists underproduced, preferring leisure over accumulation and control of resources. (6) There was no gene-driven competition for ostentatious display of wealth; to the contrary, hoarding resulted not in high status but in opprobrium. Moreover, the widespread sharing of resources rendered productive capacity moot. If anything was genetically selected, it would be the inclination to share and to contribute to the well-being of the tribe. With small exaggeration, we can say that in a gift community, rational self-interest is identical to altruism.

The mistaken intuitions of the discrete and separate self infect us so deeply that we often assume them, in disguised form, as axiomatic truth. In asking, “What is human nature?” we project back to an imaginary time when it was “every man for himself,” or perhaps rather, every family for itself, and assume that communities were a later development, an improvement on the raw state of nature. Significantly, two of the seminal philosophers in this area, Hobbes and Rousseau, who had opposite views on life in a state of nature, agreed on this point. For Hobbes, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (emphasis mine), and it was solitary for Rousseau too:

Whereas, in this primitive state, men had neither houses, nor huts, nor any kind of property whatever; every one lived where he could, seldom for more than a single night; the sexes united without design, as accident, opportunity or inclination brought them together, nor had they any great need of words to communicate their designs to each other; and they parted with the same indifference. The mother gave suck to her children at first for her own sake; and afterwards, when habit had made them dear, for theirs: but as soon as they were strong enough to go in search of their own food, they forsook her of their own accord; and, as they had hardly any other method of not losing one another than that of remaining continually within sight, they soon became quite incapable of recognizing one another when they happened to meet again. (7)

Whether or not it was true then, it is certainly true now that accumulation adds at least some measure to our security, and even to our sexual attractiveness. But not for long. The mentality of accumulation is coincident with the ascent of separation, and it is ending in tandem with the Age of Separation as well. Accumulation makes no sense for the expanded self of the gift economy.

An important theme in all my work is the integration of hunter-gatherer attitudes into technological society — a completion and not a transcendence of the past. I have already laid out in this book the monetary equivalent of nonaccumulation (decaying currency), of nonownership (elimination of economic rents), and of underproduction (leisure and degrowth). Tellingly, many people feel a pull toward these values on a personal level too, such as in the movement toward “voluntary simplicity” and in questioning the nature of work. Ahead of their time, these people have pioneered a new and ancient way of being that will soon become the norm.

Bill Kauth, founder of the Sacred Warriors and other organizations, is an internationally known social inventor and a rich man, though not in any conventional sense. He owns very little: an old car, some personal possessions, as far as I know no financial assets. Many years ago, he tells me, he took a personal vow he calls “income topping,” pledging never to earn more than $24,000 in a year. And yet, he says, “I have eaten in some of the world’s best restaurants, traveled to many of the earth’s beautiful places, had an incredibly rich life.”

In the age of the separate self, we carry a grain of cynicism and suspicion that colors our perceptions of other people and organizations. When we hear an inspirational speaker or participate in a transformative seminar, we secretly (or not so secretly) wonder, “How is this guy profiting from this? What is the gambit?” We instantly recognize any hypocrisy, such as “donations” that are in fact mandatory. Our suspicions are often well justified. Too many religious cults, spiritual movements, and multilevel marketing organizations end up with the people at the top getting rich, and we wonder, “Is this what it was about all along?” Bill Kauth was trying to find a way to tap into the considerable dynamism of multilevel marketing while eliminating the “greed factor,” and he says income topping was the only thing that showed any promise.

The suspicion of any good thing that “it’s actually all about someone trying to profit from me” has an internal counterpart, when we question our own motives. Again, sometimes this self-suspicion is well-founded. I have had occasions where it seemed that everything I ever did was for some base motivation; that all my gifts had been calculated attempts to impress someone or curry favor, that all my generosity was a pathetic attempt to win approval, that my every relationship was motivated by a secret scheme of profit. It seemed that I had never once in my life done something authentically generous; always I’d harbored a secret agenda of self-aggrandizement. This state of self-disgust has archetypal reverberations articulated in myth and religion. Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” comes to mind, as does John Calvin’s doctrine of the total depravity of man. In Buddhism, it is the humiliating realization of how much of one’s actions come from ego, even and especially the attempt to transcend ego!

I agree with Bill that income topping is a powerful way to eliminate the suspicion that poisons organizations and ideas that have the potential to transform lives. It operates similarly on the internal level and, by eliminating self-doubt over our motivations, lends power to our words. It affirms to ourselves and others the sincerity of our motives and frees people to accept our gifts. Bill’s vow was a deeply personal vow, which he didn’t share with others until, decades later, he gave me permission to write of it. I thought initially that it would have been more powerful for him to share it, but upon further reflection I changed my mind. The essential energy of that vow will radiate from him whether or not he articulates it to others. Moreover, by sharing it publicly one risks the suspicion (from oneself and others) that its true motive is vanity: to look good, to win approval. Bill indicated, however, that at some point he intended to turn the concept into a community commitment, to reinforce mutual trust and interdependency.

The salutary psychological and social effects of income topping led me to think about it in the context of sacred economics, past and future. Rather than income topping, my readings about premodern cultures suggest that something more akin to “asset topping,” which I call nonaccumulation, was widely enforced. Recall the Alaskan tribe referenced in Chapter 18: the offense was not in being too successful a hunter; it was in not sharing the meat.

Nonaccumulation models hunter-gatherer societies, in which there was great abundance but no accumulation, and in which prestige went to those who gave the most. To give the most, one also had to receive the most, either from nature or from other people. The great hunter, the skilled artist or musician, the energetic, the healthy, and the lucky would have more to give. In any event, this kind of prestige is to the benefit of all. It is only when high income translates into accumulation, frivolous consumption, or socially destructive consumption that it makes sense to restrict it. In other words, the problem is not with high income; it is with the results of the income getting stuck at some point in its circulation, accumulating and stagnating.

Nonaccumulation is a conscious intention not to accumulate more than a modest amount of assets. It is born not of the desire to be virtuous, but of the understanding that it feels much better to give than to keep, that the seeming security of accumulation is an illusion, and that excessive money and possessions burden our lives. It is deeply aligned with the spirit of the gift, of which a core principle is that the gift must circulate. Recall Mauss: “Generally, even what has been received and comes into one’s possession in this way — in whatever manner — is not kept for oneself, unless one cannot do without it.” In other words, if you need it, use it. If not, pass it on. This is such an obvious principle that even a child can understand it. Why keep something for yourself that you cannot use? It is only the “what if” that drives us to keep and hoard: What if in the future I don’t have enough? In a gift culture, what would happen is that someone would give you what you need. In a hoarding culture, the “what if” fear is self-fulfilling, creating the very conditions of vulnerability and scarcity that it assumes.

You might be thinking that since we indeed live in a hoarding culture and scarcity-inducing money system, nonaccumulation is impractical today. You might think wistfully that it would be nice if everyone else did it, but they don’t, so you’d better protect yourself. This is all very logical. I cannot offer a rational argument to refute it. All I can do is to suggest, as you read this chapter, that you notice whether something besides reason tugs at your heart. Look where reason, practicality, and playing it safe have brought us. Maybe it is time to listen to that other something.

I usually do not advocate heroic, abrupt transitions. If you are wealthy, perhaps a good way to gently adopt nonaccumulation is to apply demurrage to your own accumulated wealth right now, shrinking it by about 5 percent per year. It is going to happen anyway in a sacred economy — why not start living it now?

Poor people, of course, have always lived in nonaccumulation. The economy is now forcing it upon the middle class as well, as most people buy things on credit instead of saving up for them. While interest-bearing debts will no longer dominate economic life in the future, the obsolescence of savings, already well underway for the vast majority of Americans, is a forerunner of a nonaccumulative economy.

There is still a role for large aggregations of capital, and there are people who have a gift for using money as a medium of sacred creativity, as a ritual talisman for the coordination of human activity and the focusing of human intention. It is money that decides whether, tomorrow, five thousand people will build a skyscraper, clean up a toxic waste dump, or create a high-tech film. Of course, there are other rituals through which we coordinate human activity, some of which invoke stories and powers prior even to money, but it is a potent tool nonetheless. This is the essence of “sacred investing,” the subject of the next chapter. To the holders of wealth, I invite you to think in terms of what you will create through collective human agency. Or, how can you use money in the most beautiful way?

Each organism in nature, each cell in the body, can handle only a certain volume of energy throughput. We are the same. Too much flow through a channel can burst the channel. Too big an accumulation is a tumor. Frivolous purchases such as a castle you never go to, or a fifteenth Rolls-Royce, are symptoms of excessive income. The organism is desperately trying to dissipate the energy flow, letting go and holding on at the same time. What the profligate rich man really wants to do is to give it away so as to balance giving and receiving, yet instead he just buys stuff and keeps it. What is the fear that impels him to hold on even as he lets go? It is the fear that rules the separate self, alone in the universe. Accumulation is a way to enlarge the tiny separate self. Yet ultimately this enlargement is a blatant lie. We leave this world as we entered it: naked.

Most of the baubles of the rich are substitutions for what they truly need — sports cars substituting for freedom, mansions compensating for the lost connections of a shrunken self, status symbols in place of genuine respect from self and others. A sad game it is, the charade of wealth. Even the security it supposedly brings is a deceit, as life’s travails have a way of infiltrating the fortress of wealth, afflicting its inhabitants with distorted forms of the same social ills that affect everyone else. Of course, you can imagine various medical emergencies and such in which wealth can be a lifesaver, but so what? We are all going to die anyway, and no matter how long you live, the moment will come when you look back upon your years and they seem short, a flash of lightning in the dark of night, and you realize that the purpose of life is not after all to survive in maximum security and comfort, but that we are here to give, to create that which is beautiful to us.

Lest you think I am doing some noble thing in practicing nonaccumulation, let me assure you that when I began to live in this way, I had no sense of self-sacrifice, but rather of lightness and freedom. I am a person of quite average generosity, and far from saintly. This is not a noble idea I am offering you; it is a practical one. First, because it keeps my heart light and free. Second, because I know that as I give, so shall I receive. Third, because I will live in an ongoing wealth of connectedness, the expansion of the circle of self that happens through the Gift. Fourth, because I believe that I will live beautifully even in material terms. For example, I love the sea, and for years I dreamed of one day living in a house by the shore. It is a dream so vivid I can hear the gulls and smell the salty air. I once thought that to have it, I would have to make an awful lot of money. Now I believe that though I may never “own” a house by the sea, I will be invited to stay in one “any time,” and when the owner says, “Make yourself at home,” he will mean it from the bottom of his heart.

If the world receives my work enthusiastically, then I expect to receive a great many gifts, far more than I can use for myself. What a waste it would be to accumulate great assets, stocks and bonds, investments and portfolios, basements and attics full of possessions! Why accumulate when there is so much excess in this world to share? Whether or not a decaying currency and gift economy appear in this lifetime, we can live in it right now. We can, to use Gesell’s phrase, reduce money to the rank of umbrellas, freely lending it or giving it to friends who are in need. There is, of course, no guarantee that I will always receive the money or other gifts I need when I need them. I expect sometimes to have no money at all, but for this to be a matter of little anxiety. On the other hand, I might starve and regret not having accumulated and protected a nest egg. But I doubt it, and for me the freedom from worry and anxiety — the open, flowing, light experience of letting it go — far outweighs the risk. If you want guarantees, then go ahead and accumulate, until you discover that the promised security is a mirage, that life’s vicissitudes have a way of invading the fortress of wealth.

At a deep level, the distinction between accumulation and nonaccumulation is a false distinction that smuggles in assumptions of scarcity and separation. A gift mind-set experiences the abundance of the world as a personal abundance and lives an experience of life that conforms to that mind-set. The mind-set of separation sees gifts, loans, and savings as three very different things, but are they really? If I am in a phase of life where I receive more than I can use, I could give it away, thereby generating gratitude, or I could loan it to others, relying on obligation instead of gratitude, or I could just save the money, seemingly not relying on other people at all. But these three choices are not as different as they may seem. First, as discussed earlier, a very blurry line divides gratitude and obligation, and in gift cultures each reinforces the other. Whether it is gratitude that moves someone to give to those who have given or the social agreements that, ultimately, are based on the very same principle of gratitude (the rightness of giving to those who give), the result is the same. As for savings and investment, in a credit-based currency system like our own, these are no different from lending. A savings account is a loan-at-call to a bank. Like a loan, monetary savings says, “I have given to others in the past and can call upon others to give to me in the future.” Even in the case of equities or physical commodities, accumulation depends on social conventions of ownership.

In a sense, then, it is impossible for the recipient of gifts not to accumulate. As long as I give within a social witnessing, I will build up a source of abundance for the future. (Even if there is no social witnessing, I believe the universe will return to us what we have given, perhaps in some other form, perhaps, indeed, multiplied a hundredfold.) Ultimately, then, the essence of nonaccumulation lies in the intention with which money is given, lent, invested, or saved. In the spirit of the gift, we focus on the purpose and let the return to ourselves be secondary, an afterthought. In the spirit of accumulation, we seek to ensure and maximize the return and let the destination of the gift, loan, or investment serve that end. The former is a state of freedom, abundance, and trust. The latter is a state of anxiety, scarcity, and control. Whoever lives in the former is rich. Whoever lives in the latter is poor, no matter how much wealth he or she possesses.

In the future, when social mechanisms are in place to eliminate economic rents (i.e., profits from merely owning land, money, etc.), the way of living I have described will accord with economic logic, not just spiritual logic. When money decays anyway, it is better to lend it to others at zero interest than it is to keep more than you need. Moreover, as the mentality of abundance becomes prevalent, the distinction between a loan, a gift, and an investment will blur. We will be secure in knowing that whether or not there is a formal agreement to repay a gift, an obligation has been created, if not with a particular person then with society or even the universe. This realization is a natural consequence of the new Story of Self — the connected self — that underlies the sacred economy we are transitioning into. More for you is more for me. From the spiritual perspective this has always been true, even at the height of the Age of Separation. From the economic perspective, it was true in the gift culture of yore, and it is becoming true again as we establish new economic institutions to recreate gift economics in a modern context.

These new, gift-aligned economic institutions are both a cause and a result of a change in general attitudes. When enough people begin to live in nonaccumulation, they will establish a psychic foundation upon which the new economic institutions can stand. Practically speaking, people will recognize the new kinds of money as something that reflects their values and spiritual intuitions. They will “get it”; they will adopt it enthusiastically. This is happening already: despite the huge structural disincentives for using complementary currencies, people still find them exciting and alluring. Even though there is as yet little economic reason to use them, people want to anyway, understanding intuitively that these currencies are in alignment with the new Story of Self they are stepping into. Already, our spiritual intuitions signal in advance the truth of coming times: that possessions are a burden, that true wealth comes from sharing, that as we do unto others, so we do unto ourselves.

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1. Please note that this dichotomy between the forager and the farmer is somewhat artificial. One merged gradually into the other, and the original attitudes of the forager were slow to die; indeed, some of them linger on to this day. The swidden farmer, the high Medieval peasant, and the Bantu herdsman enjoyed a pace of life nearly as leisurely as that of the hunter-gatherer.

2. Associated with the Industrial Revolution, the Age of the Machine is not distinct from the agricultural age but rather is an overlay onto it. Its beginnings go back to the builder societies of the ancient world, whose pyramids and monuments demanded the same division of labor and the same standardization of products, processes, and human functions that characterize the modern factory system. They also resulted in the same human misery, toil, and poverty.

3. I would precede these with a 30,000-year age of symbolic culture (that’s about how old the earliest representational art is-and, in one view, symbolic language as well), a 300,000-year age of fire, and a 3,000,000-year age of stone.

4. For example, the squirrels are actually planting trees, thus acting as an agent of the trees’ propagation. The tree feeds the squirrel, and the squirrel helps the tree reproduce, just like the relationship between wasps and fig trees and between countless other species. Observing such relationships, it is easy to understand why early humans saw nature in terms of the Gift.

5. Dodds, Walter Kennedy. Humanity’s Footprint: Momentum, Impact and our Global Environment. New York, Columbia University Press. 2008. p. 123.

6. See Marshall Sahlins’s Stone Age Economics (New York. Routledge: 2003) for numerous demonstrations of underproduction.

7. Rousseau, Jean Jacques. A Dissertation on the Origin of Inequality among Men, transl. by G.D.H. Cole (1754). part 1.

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