Sacred Economics: Chapter 22, Community and the Unquantifiable

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.

Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists. –John Kenneth Galbraith


Earlier in this book I described the disconnection and loneliness of a society in which nearly all social capital, nearly all relationships, have been converted to paid services; in which distant strangers meet nearly all of our material needs; in which we can always “pay someone else to do it”; in which the unspoken knowledge I don’t need you pervades our social gatherings, rendering them vacuous and dispensable. Such is the pinnacle of civilization, the end point of centuries of increasing affluence: lonely people in boxes, living in a world of strangers, dependent on money, enslaved to debt — and incinerating the planet’s natural and social capital to stay that way. We have no community because community is woven from gifts. How can we create community when we pay for all we need?

Community is not some add-on to our other needs, not a separate ingredient for happiness along with food, shelter, music, touch, intellectual stimulation, and other forms of physical and spiritual nourishment. Community arises from the meeting of these needs. There is no community possible among a group of people who do not need each other. Therefore, any life that seeks to be independent of other people for the meeting of one’s needs is a life without community.

The gifts that weave community cannot be mere superficialities; they must meet real needs. Only then do they inspire gratitude and create the obligations that bind people together. The difficulty in creating community today is that when people meet all their needs with money, there is nothing left to give. If you give someone a product that is for sale somewhere, either you are giving them money (by saving them the expense of buying it themselves) or you are giving them something they don’t need (else they would have already bought it). Neither is sufficient to create community unless, in the first instance, the recipient actually needs money. Thus it is that poor people develop much stronger communities than rich people do. They have more unmet needs. This has been one of the greatest teachings of my period of poverty that followed the publication of The Ascent of Humanity. Out of necessity, I learned to receive without fear of stepping into obligation. The aid I received reawakened in me the primal gratitude of infancy, the realization that I am utterly dependent for my survival and existence on the web of giving that surrounds me. It empowered me to be more generous, too, having experienced and survived the ignominy of bankruptcy, of losing my apartment and sleeping with my children in other people’s living rooms, and learning that it is OK to receive such help. Perhaps one benefit of the hard economic times that are encroaching upon our illusion of normalcy is that they will reawaken in more and more people this primal gratitude, borne of the necessity of receiving gifts in the absence of payment. As in infancy, periods of helplessness reconnect us to the principle of the gift. Other people I know have had similar realizations when severe illness rendered them helpless.

When I realized that the dissolution of community comes from the monetization of functions that were once part of the gift network, I could at first see no other way to recover community than to abandon the money economy and, by extension, the economic and industrial system of mass production. I could see no other way to reestablish community than to resume doing things “the hard way” again: doing things without machines. If community dies when strangers make all the things we need, then to restore it, I thought, we must return to local, and necessarily lower-tech, production-production not requiring a global division of labor.

It would be silly, though, to relinquish the things we have today simply in order to have community. It would be futile, too, because on some level we would sense the pretense. The needs met would not be real needs; they would be artificial. To say, “I could saw these boards in an hour with a table saw, but let’s use a two-person handsaw instead and take two days, because that will make us more interdependent,” is a delusion. Artificial dependency is not the solution to the artificial separation we have today. The solution is not to meet already-met needs less effectively, so that we are forced to help each other. Rather, it is to meet the needs that languish unfulfilled today.

It is not desire for community that will motivate a renaissance in traditional handcrafts and low-tech production. The cessation of hidden subsidies for energy-intensive centralized production and transport will support this renaissance, but will not force it. We will return to local production from a desire to improve life and meet unmet needs — a desire to become richer. The people who say, “We’d better learn how to use hand tools again because petroleum will become so expensive we’ll have to,” are indulging in a kind of fatalism. They hope we will be forced back into right livelihood. I think we will choose it. The crises borne of separation will nudge us toward that choice with increasing force, but if we really desire as a species to maintain an ugly mass-produced way of life, we probably can for a long time to come, until we exhaust the very foundation of the biosphere. Peak Oil will not save us! Instead, we will choose to revitalize local, small-scale, labor-intensive production as the only way to meet important human needs. It is the only way to enrich our lives and to fulfill the New Materialism I describe in the next chapter.

You see, that feeling of “I don’t need you” is based on an illusion. In fact, we do need each other. Despite being able to pay for everything we need, we do not feel satisfied; we do not feel like all our needs have actually been met. We feel empty, hungry. And because this hunger is present as much in the rich as in the poor, I know it must be for something that money cannot buy. Perhaps there is hope for community after all, even in the midst of a monetized society. Perhaps it lies in those needs that bought things cannot satisfy. Perhaps the very things we need the most are absent from the products of mass production, cannot be quantified or commoditized, and are therefore inherently outside the money realm.

The financially independent person is not bereft of community because he meets all of his needs via money — he is bereft of community because he is not meeting his needs except through money. More precisely, he is trying to use money to meet needs that money cannot meet. Money, impersonal and generic, can by itself only meet needs that are the same. It can meet the need for calories, X grams of protein, Y milligrams of vitamin C — anything that can be standardized and quantified. But it cannot by itself meet the need for beautiful food prepared by someone who cares. Money can meet the need for shelter, but it cannot by itself meet the need for a home that is an organic extension of oneself. Money can buy virtually any implement, but not one that is attached to the story of a maker you know personally and who knows you. Money can buy songs, but not a song sung specifically to you. Even if you hire a band to play in your home, there is no guarantee, no matter how much you pay, that they will really sing to you and not just pretend to. If your mother sang you lullabies, or if you have ever been serenaded by a lover, you know what I am talking about and how deep a need it fills. Sometimes it even happens at a concert, when the band isn’t just putting on an act but is actually playing for that audience, or really, to that audience. Each such performance is unique, and its special, magical quality vanishes in recording. “You had to be there.” True, we may pay money to attend such an event, but we receive more than we paid for when the band is truly playing to us. We do not feel that the transaction is complete and closed, that all obligations are canceled out, as in a pure money transaction. We feel a lingering connection, because a giving has transpired. No life can be rich without such experiences, which might ride the vehicle of money transactions, but which no amount of money can guarantee.

The situation in America, the most highly monetized society the world has ever known, is this: some of our needs are vastly overfulfilled while others go tragically unmet. We in the richest societies have too many calories even as we starve for beautiful, fresh food; we have overlarge houses but lack spaces that truly embody our individuality and connectedness; media surround us everywhere while we starve for authentic communication. We are offered entertainment every second of the day but lack the chance to play. In the ubiquitous realm of money, we hunger for all that is intimate, personal, and unique. We know more about the lives of Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, and Lindsay Lohan than we do about our own neighbors, with the result that we really don’t know anyone, and are barely known by anyone either.

The things we need the most are the things we have become most afraid of, such as adventure, intimacy, and authentic communication. We avert our eyes and stick to comfortable topics. We hold it as a virtue to be private, to be discreet, so that no one sees our dirty laundry — or even our clean laundry: our undergarments are considered unsightly, a value strangely reflected in the widespread American prohibition on hanging laundry outdoors to dry. Life has become a private affair. We are uncomfortable with intimacy and connection, which are among the greatest of our unmet needs today. To be truly seen and heard, to be truly known, is a deep human need. Our hunger for it is so omnipresent, so much a part of our experience of life, that we no more know what it is we are missing than a fish knows it is wet. We need way more intimacy than nearly anyone considers normal. Always hungry for it, we seek solace and sustenance in the closest available substitutes: television, shopping, pornography, conspicuous consumption — anything to ease the hurt, to feel connected, or to project an image by which we might be seen and known, or at least see and know ourselves.

Clearly, the transition to a sacred economy accompanies a transition in our psychology. Community, which in today’s parlance usually means proximity or a mere network, is a much deeper kind of connection than that: it is a sharing of one’s being, an expansion of one’s self. To be in community is to be in personal, interdependent relationship, and it comes with a price: our illusion of independence, our freedom from obligation. You can’t have it both ways. If you want community, you must be willing to be obligated, dependent, tied, attached. You will give and receive gifts that you cannot just buy somewhere. You will not be able to easily find another source. You need each other.

I have in this chapter circled around the question of what, exactly, are the needs that go unfulfilled in the monetized world. I have given many examples of things that meet a deep need — songs sung to us, homes that are an extension of the self, food prepared with love. But what is the general principle? Whether our needs are for material sustenance or spiritual (e.g., touch, play, story, music, or dancing), none are unassailably free of the money realm. We can buy touch; we can buy stories (e.g., when we go to the movies); we buy music and video games to play; we can even buy sex. But whatever we buy, something unquantifiable (and therefore impervious to monetization) either rides its vehicle, or does not, and it is that unquantifiable thing that we really crave. When it is missing, whatever we have bought seems empty. It does not satisfy. When it is present, then even if we have purchased the vehicle it rides, we know we have received infinitely more than we paid for. We know, in other words, that we have received a gift. The chef who puts extra care into cooking something special, the musician playing her heart out, and the engineer who overdesigned a product just because he wanted to do it right will not directly profit from their extra efforts. They are in the spirit of the gift, and we can feel it-hence the desire to send “our compliments to the chef.” Their behavior is uneconomic, and the present competition-based money system weeds it out. If you have ever worked in that system, you know what I mean. I am speaking of the relentless pressure to do things just well enough, and no better.

What is that unquantifiable extra thing that sometimes rides the vehicle of the bought and converts it into a gift? What is this need, mostly unmet in modern civilization? Put succinctly, the essential need that goes unmet today, the fundamental need that takes a thousand forms, is the need for the sacred-the experience of uniqueness and connectedness that I described in the introduction.

Environmentalists often state that we can ill afford to maintain our resource-intensive lifestyles, implying that we would like to if only we could afford it. I disagree. I think we will move toward a more ecological way of life by positive choice. Instead of saying, “Too bad we have to leave our gigantic suburban homes behind because they use too much energy,” we will no longer want those homes because we will recognize and respond to our need for personal, connected, sacred dwellings in tight communities. The same goes for the rest of the modern consumer lifestyle. We will put it aside because we can no longer stand the emptiness, the ugliness. We are starving for spiritual nourishment. We are starving for a life that is personal, connected, and meaningful. By choice, that is where we will direct our energy. When we do so, community will arise anew because this spiritual nourishment can only come to us as a gift, as part of a web of gifts in which we participate as giver and receiver. Whether or not it rides the vehicle of something bought, it is irreducibly personal and unique.

When I use the word spiritual, I am not contradistinguishing it from the material. I have little patience with any philosophy or religion that seeks to transcend the material realm. Indeed, the separation of the spiritual from the material is instrumental in our heinous treatment of the material world. Sacred economics treats the world as more sacred, not less. It is more materialistic than our current culture — materialistic in the sense of deeply and attentively loving our world. So when I speak of meeting our spiritual needs, it is not to keep cranking out the cheap, generic, planet-killing stuff while we meditate, pray, and prattle on about angels, spirit, and God. It is to treat relationship, circulation, and material life itself as sacred. Because they are.

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