(Week 13 - Saturday, Nov. 8)
In "Religion and the Rise of Capitalism", historian R. H. Tawney observed:
"Few who consider dispassionately the facts of social history will be disposed to deny that the exploitation of the weak by the powerful, organized for purposes of economic gain, buttressed by imposing systems of law, and screened by decorous draperies of virtuous sentiment and resounding rhetoric, has been a permanent feature in the life of most communities that the world has yet seen."
It is time to arrest this tragic litany. Throughout history there have been many struggles to win the rights, protect the dignity, and insure the welfare of mankind. Unfailingly, these demands have been resisted by a reactionary establishment whose power is rooted in the economic order of their day. It at first denies, then stonewalls, then grudgingly accommodates the demands. Eventually it preempts and incorporates the changes for its own devices, as part of the "imposing systems of law" and "decorous draperies of virtuous sentiment and resounding rhetoric" with which the system props itself up.
Chattel slavery is abolished, universal suffrage is won, the rights of labor are established, a social safety net is laid out, environmental protections are enacted, and a multitude of other reforms are accomplished. A black man is elected as President of the nation (alternately a woman nearly elected Vice-President), and the euphoria of the moment transcends party lines. Our society indeed moves ahead by quantum leaps.
Still, there is something crucial we are not getting at. That is that the energy of our civilization, and in turn its social, political and economic structure, is still controlled from the top for the benefit of the few, rather than percolating up from the bottom for the welfare of the People. Indeed, it may be argued that the economic polarization is getting ever more extreme. What is more, one could make a case that we, as a species, are lurching dangerously close to self-annihilation on many fronts, from resource exhaustion, to disease pandemics, to species extinction, to loss of genetic diversity, to environmental poisoning, to nuclear holocaust, to climate change, to moral degradation, to (fill in the blank).
The reason for this, I believe, is that we have not properly recognized the bedrock importance of the nature and control of the monetary system. Money is an abstraction. It is weightless, colorless, odorless, ephemeral and intangible in every physical way; yet is seems to control everything. It is the essential energy, the life force, the prana, the chi of the system.
To draw a medical analogy, if a pathogen attacks a body, it does so through the blood, the fluids, the nerve synapses, and other processes by which it circulates energy to live and grow. If a pathological agenda attacks a socio/political/economic body, it does so through the monetary system for the same reason. This is not just another issue, but a little recognized reality that underlies all issues. We have come to an unprecedented point in history where it can no longer await its turn for attention. Humankind has reached the stage where we have the power to threaten our very existence through many avenues. We must at last gain control of our own energy processes.
Expanding the medical analogy, in a material sense a dead body may contain every element it had when it was alive, down to the most infinitesimal cell structure. What has changed is that the connection with the intangible energy that animated every fiber of its being has dropped below viability and ceased to function.
An economy is much like that. The physical part abides. The sun beams down, the rains fall, the plants grow, the infrastructure persists, and the hands, hearts and minds remain willing and able to do the work. This is equally true in times of boom and bust alike. What changes is this ephemeral abstraction which seems to control everything: the monetary system.
Money is a paradox. It is nothing, yet it is everything. We must finally transcend that paradox if the human race is to gain control of its own destiny. In doing so, we will at once transform the debate on all issues, from an impasse in which we appear to be checkmated by lack of funds, to an open-ended march to the future with all the physical and human resources we can mobilize. Money will cease to be a bludgeon that hinders or drives the social order. It will instead become a superconductor that transfers energy efficiently and equitably though it.
When we get fully into this process we will be dealing with, not just finances, but the transformation of our whole civilization. It is the economic dimension of a larger key to crack the whole mess we are in wide open. We would at last break out of the "debt-money" straightjacket, and dispel the Federal-deficit sword of Damocles. Then we will start to get a handle on our other seemingly intractable problems; social, political, ecological, agricultural, urban, rural, education, health care, or whatever. Living morality will merge with common-sense practicality as we begin to reclaim the creativity, civility and humaneness of our civilization.
For those with the vision to see this represents, not merely a solution for an economic problem, but also the opening of a new horizon; one which could light up the imagination of a whole new generation. To be sure, the audacity of the prospect is intimidating, but if we approach it with grace, determination and aplomb, it may turn out to be our nation's greatest adventure yet.
I saw in the youthful faces of those gathered in Chicago Tuesday evening a deep yearning for what might be. Let us not foreclose on their hope for the future by failing to act.
The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.