Crossing the Fiscal Cliff: From Competitive to Associative Economics

Much has been made, in recent months, of the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ that the U.S. government, at any moment it seems, threatens to plummet over and fall, flailing, into the economic abyss. The picture has become, already, somewhat cliché, though it is, perhaps, not such an inaccurate expression of the reality at hand.

For it is true that we have approached a threshold of sorts, both on the macro-economic level and on the level of the human being. It is possible to also come to the conclusion that, globally, we crossed this threshold a while ago and have been hovering, mid-air, over the abyss for some time now, kept up by ‘hot air currents’ and, in a way, the inertia provided by the determination of our headlong advance over the edge in the first place. We have, as it were, been stepping on air, pretending it was the same ground from whence we came. In reality, however, we have been too scared to look down, fearful of what we might see and what it might tell us about ourselves. In doing so we have also cut ourselves off from the possibilities that await us on the other side.

Every crisis of our time is an opportunity for us to re-examine ourselves, and to overcome all that stands in the way of our own progress and the progress of others. Because the economic reality of our age has become the reality, any crises that arise in this field challenge us to re-examine everything. It is clear that our current understandings and pictures of economics are now in doubt and, with this, so is our picture of the human being. All that has been constructed as air castles above the abyss – built with the bricks of so much hot air – threatens, at any moment, to dissolve with the wind, plummeting civilisation into the depths, and the human being along with it. The question must be, How can we navigate this situation in the healthiest way possible? How can we work consciously with that which is already unfolding?

America is not the first empire to find itself on shaky ground, or even to crumble. We need only look to Rome for some interesting observations. Of course many reasons exist for it, but a central element in the decline of this ancient civilisation, as Gerard Klockenbring and others have made clear, is that all money ultimately flowed away from Rome.[1] Soldiers – in conquering the lands of western and central Europe, northern Africa, parts of the UK, and east across Europe into Asia – had to be paid. They were paid in plundered and mined gold and gold coinage. They used this to purchase non-consumable treasures which they sent back to Rome. There these treasures sat, un-exchanged. The gold – the money – itself, however, flowed away from Rome, particularly towards the east – towards Asia (through not, directly speaking, as far as China). Eventually the empire could not sustain itself economically, and ultimately collapsed.

Racing forward through the centuries, not towards another empire but to another interesting situation, we come across the Australian gold rushes of the 1850s, particularly those in Victoria. Here we can see the miners needing to spend their money – and if they didn’t have any, their gold – on basic necessities as well as wants. Entrepreneurs who catered to meet these needs and wants became somewhat successful; many of them being of Asian decent. European or ‘white’ Australian miners believed that the entrepreneurs (as well as other miners of Asian descent) were somehow cheating them (and Australia) out of their rightful possessions. Racist riots and violence ensued. The government, rather than punishing the perpetrators, or in some way dealing with the situation progressively and creatively, instead enacted racist, anti-Asian immigration policies (the stream of which continues in a slightly different expression today; namely, through refugee policies). This only meant, however, that Chinese and other Asian miners landed further afield and walked incredible distances to the goldfields through the Australian bush, where many died.

In our time, the largest trading partner of both Australia and America – and many other countries besides – is China. The largest foreign holder of U.S. debt is China, owning $1.17 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities. Iron ore is a main driver of Australia’s mining exports and, through this, its economy as a whole. Around 70% of iron ore mined in Australia is sold to China. Many more figures could of course be cited, if we so wished (for figures can be used to prove whatever we like these days).

We must be careful, however, to observe phenomena in the right light, for the world we live in today is radically different from even a century or so ago. We must be prepared to dig a little deeper in our observations, to mine the deeper gold, for the surface has been completely exhausted; and, in doing so, peer a little more consciously into the abyss beneath our feet. We must, in a way, mine the knowledge and experience of the abyss itself.

It may be tempting, for some, to raise the fist of their inner 1850s miner and direct it in racist tradition towards the Chinese of today. Needless to say, nothing could be more futile. On one level we could say that the U.S. government debt to China of $1.17 trillion represents only around 1/14th of its total $16 trillion debt. Likewise, we could also say that the mining industry represents only around 10% of Australia’s economy. Digging from a slightly different angle, we can also say that increased trade with China in recent years has come about simply through the meeting of the needs that U.S., Australian and other consumers have themselves expressed and re-expressed through purchasing of foreign goods at cheap prices (on credit or otherwise).

With the courage to dig a little deeper, however, we encounter other questions, including, With all this increase in production (China has been called ‘the world’s factory’) and trade in general, how is it possible that so many Chinese still live in abject poverty? (and how is it that so many jobs clearly violate human rights?) Likewise, we can ask, Amidst the current mining boom in Australia, how is it that the gap between rich and poor is steadily widening? (not to mention the conditions of indigenous Australians.) Indeed, we can also ask, How is it possible, within the world’s so-called ‘superpower’ of America, that so many citizens now live below the poverty line, unable to meet their needs? (We should also ask, How is it that all countries, regardless of their perceived prosperity, find themselves in so much debt?) These are questions connected to the very real human dimensions of economic crises; in America, in Australia, and throughout the rest of the world. For these questions reveal that economic decline and prosperity are no longer, in essence, directly linked to the prosperity, or otherwise, of nation states. The economy is global and, essentially, manoeuvres around the efforts of nation states to control it. It goes its own way. All that governments can do is attempt, or otherwise, to mitigate the harm the economy currently inflicts upon the majority of citizens. For if it is no longer governments that reap the economic spoils within the current global economic paradigm of elite globalisation, then it must be individuals and corporations that do so (with corporations legally considered as ‘people’ in America). In America, and elsewhere, these individuals are private citizens (though they are more citizens of the economy than of any country); in China, under communist rule, where the economy is controlled for the most part by government, the economic superpowers are individuals connected to the ruling party. The money in China is not ‘communally’ divided amongst its citizens. It would therefore be incorrect to say that communist China has ‘won’ the competition of capitalism – rather, if it is possible to say such a thing, the competition is currently being won by individuals living in both communist and capitalist countries – it is ‘won’ (though more will be said on this later) by individuals whose motto is, simply, ‘more.’

If nation states are no longer the central vessels of economic life, why do they treat themselves as economies, devoting a large part of their policies, debates, time and resources to managing themselves as if they were businesses? (Should not the role of government simply be to ensure equality of rights for all its citizens?) The economic life has flowed away from political/rights life. As we have seen, all that states can do is try to mitigate – through such measures as taxation, welfare, bail-outs, subsidies, grants and so on – the harm that the current economic system inflicts. This activity, however, directly contradicts the principle of the so-called ‘free market’ which argues for an economy untouched by government influence. In reality, the current economic system seeks to be free enough to decide when it wants to be free, and when it wants to be unfree (i.e. supported by government). This is, in truth, not a freedom balanced with responsibility, but a purely reckless abandon, propped up and re-enforced by the governments of the world in fear of what the abyss experience actually holds in store for us.

For if we dig even deeper, we can discover that our very economic foundations are unsound, not just ethically or morally, but more importantly, economically – this is of critical importance. For it is not so much a question of how things should be or aught to be, but of how the economic reality actually is. Only from this clearly understood place can we create something new. So if it is largely futile to raise a fist in revolution (civil disobedience is another matter of course, as Thoreau, Tolstoy, King and Ghandi have all shown), and if government regulation of the economy has largely failed to improve social conditions while creating, at the same time, much of the debt we are currently faced with, the only logical and economic solution is to re-examine the economy itself. The reality of our time must be rebuilt anew. Here our air castles completely dissolve and we find ourselves hovering in mid-air. If we are honest, we can observe the very real fear, doubt and cynicism (or even hatred) that such a journey engenders. These are very real figures that emerge in this social abyss, and within ourselves. But rather than scrambling to rebuild our illusory foundations, we can instead acknowledge the journey ahead; the fear it causes, the doubt that arises regarding next steps, and the cynicism and hatred that further insights about reality may create. These are very real experiences that we face.

Courage must be found in order to not only see the current phenomenon as it is, but also to observe how it seeks to be. We need to experience the essence of what we are faced with – only then will we have a sure path to follow; only then will we have something to create from. For this is the bridge that can approach us from the other side of the abyss; the place – if we are able to dig far enough – where we actually seek to be, and where, in truth, we look to find our fellow human beings.

Some of the fundamental questions that face us at this point are: What is at work in any economic transaction? What is capital? And with this, What is money? It is often what we consider to be the most simple of concepts or phenomena that actually hide within them the greatest of mysteries; while the conventional concepts we attach to them, on closer inspection, mostly reveal nothing other than our own ignorance.

First, we can observe the way in which, in any transaction, more than one person is involved. Human beings are at the centre of all economic activity. Here, it is traditionally supposed that economic activity, through the concept of supply and demand (that is, with supply existing on one side and demand existing on the other, thereby determining price), flows, essentially, in one direction. However, a closer examination of any transaction reveals how this economic activity flows in both directions simultaneously. In a purchase transaction, for example, I supply either a product and demand your money, or I supply money and demand your product, and vice versa for you. (I value your product more than my money, or I value your money more than my product, and vice versa.) There is supply and demand on both sides at once, and not just one on one side at one time, with the other on the other side. Likewise, therefore, it is not a question of either the buyer or seller losing while the other gains. Rather, if we are conscious of the reality at hand, we can observe the way in which we mutually benefit from one another in any transaction. In economics we are, in essence, dealing not with one-way competition, but two-way association (however we may actually choose to work with this reality).

In any transaction we can also ask, What is the function played by money? Money, in the moment of transaction, is attributed a value. From where does this value come? There might be a numerical figure on the currency note, coin or account we hold – but how do we value this number itself? $5 in America does not equal $5 elsewhere around the world. Nor does $5 mean as much to someone today as it did a hundred years ago. Likewise, the teenager may value it differently than would the millionaire. To a drowning man, it may have no value whatsoever, unless he could purchase with it some kind of floatation device. We can also ask the same of that which we are purchasing: From where does its value arise? A glass of water to a person dying of thirst would be valued more highly than by someone with a ready supply of water. Essentially, we can say the same of all commodities, and all money: value arises in the conscious agreements that are made between human beings in the moment of transaction; it is an expression of consciousness itself. Strictly or, rather, exactly speaking, money is consciousness. It is a function of ‘what will I give? – what will I sacrifice – for that which you are giving?’ It is an expression of conscious sacrifice. It is an expression and mechanism of absolute mutuality, interdependence and association with our fellow human beings – our economic brothers and sisters. It is a way for us to serve the needs of all peoples, all over the world.

The present situation has arisen because we have acted economically untruthfully. Rather than treating it as it economically should be treated, we have treated money itself as a commodity which can be bought and sold. Money, however, strictly speaking, cannot be produced, increased, distributed and consumed in the same way as all other commodities. It cannot be eaten, we cannot clothe ourselves with it. It cannot be used practically. Money is, to be economically correct, not a commodity. To treat it as such only makes the plunge into the abyss all the more inevitable and painful. Nor is it economically correct to say that we can store it up as interest-bearing savings in order that it can generate more of itself. Nothing is, economically speaking, produced in this way. If we wish to treat money in accordance with its reality we are instead forced to recognise that money, as a token which expresses the consciously agreed value that we give to commodities, should share in a fundamental quality of all other commodities (and if by chance we still believe that money is a commodity then we are forced to give to it this quality also), namely, that it should deteriorate over time. By assuming, as we currently do, that the value of money (as we also assume of commodities) is somehow ‘stored up’ or ‘fixed’ in the money itself, we are acting economically incorrectly. We have built our castle out of a fear of insecurity – a fear that we will never have enough. Consequently, we seek to use money to make more of it, for its own sake – to save and hoard it for ourselves and maybe for our children when we die. Money, however, in essence, as a token of the values we give to commodities in the moment of transaction – like the commodities themselves – seeks to depreciate over time. Money seeks not to stagnate but rather to circulate; to circulate through agreements in order to meet the very real needs of all human beings.

Similar economic untruths can also be seen to exist in the way in which we incorrectly treat land, labour and other, non-monetary capital as commodities. Land is given to us from nature, and does not share in the qualities of commodities as mentioned above. Likewise, if I exert the same about of labour doing exercises as I do working to produce a good, this exercise in itself has no economic value; it is not the labour itself that has value, but that which I produce, through exerting such labour, at the moment of sale. Land, labour and capital, including money, belong, in essence, not to economic life, but to the life of rights. Each of them works as part of rights activity – existing as a right or claim to use (or application), now and in the future. Money, for instance, is a claim against all potential sellers, essentially against all human beings. When I have money, I have a claim against the whole human community. It is, as Klockenbring describes, a circulating promissory note – a right.[2] As Joseph Beuys puts it, money is a “rights document.”[3]

It is clear that the current economic difficulties facing America are manifestations of the same problems facing the entire world and all human beings (regardless of whether economic growth and other indicators are, for the time being, moving up or down). We have created an economic system based on economic untruths under the paradigm of competition and selfishness (and have then used government to try to fix the resulting problems, rather than root them out at their economic source). Adam Smith’s so-called ‘invisible hand’ of the market has not magically made social our unsocial, selfish activity. Rather, it has amplified it. Social Darwinism, also based on incorrect observations (in this case, observations of the natural world[4]) has likewise manifested as an economic untruth detrimentally affecting the lives of billions of human beings.

Only economic systems based on mutuality, interdependence and association between human beings can be said to be working economically truthfully. There are many manifestations of this already at work in the world today, but there needs to be more. Such activity can exist anywhere, essentially, where human beings replace the so-called invisible hand of the market with their own hands, thereby acting in conscious accordance with the truth of economic reality (as we have only been able to touch upon here), creating, through this, true prices based on real needs.

The following exercise may serve to fructify some of the thoughts we have been considering here. We can imaginatively picture Earth from above. We can create a picture for ourselves, in a worldwide night-time setting, of the globe covered in the tiny flickering of countless lights; Earth, at night, covered with tiny, blinking lights. If we look closely, we can see the way in which these flashing lights stream at the speed of electricity from one corner of the globe to another, then, sometimes, stream back again. If we look even closer we can see the way in which they seem to be concentrated in certain places, shedding a greater amount of light. Over time, more lights from other parts of the world either dim down or work their way to these larger, glowing centres. From these centres, more lights are sent out, only to bring back even more light, until much of the rest of the world is plunged into relative darkness. We can picture to ourselves these large, glowing centres, with the rest of the world covered in the black of night. (If we wished, we could even continue the imagination to the point at which such concentration of light is no longer self-sustainable; such areas gradually begin to dim down and peter out, until the whole of the earth is plunged into a general darkness – a black globe, a hole, a lacuna floating through space.)

These lights represent not only money and all other capital, but also the human spirit. Money is consciousness, money is spirit. That is, capital is spirit. As Beuys puts it, “Capital = Creativity; Capital = Art.” The consequence of the coagulation and concentration of capital in the accounts of a few, or in land, is the extinguishing of spiritual-cultural life. It means the extinguishing of the human spirit in all human beings who must struggle to meet the most basic of needs before they even have the opportunity to develop their own capacities through learning and education – of developing themselves spiritually – which is the field, in truth, where capital really seeks to flow. Economic capital seeks to unite itself with spiritual, human capital – with human capacity and creativity. Therefore, we should not be fearful when capital flows to the east, nor to the north, south or west, but rather, we should be concerned when it does not flow towards spiritual-cultural life – to, generally speaking, educational and cultural initiatives – to the development of human capacity. For if this course is blocked, it will result in nothing other than a spiritual darkening of the earth.

While it may seem that the wealthy few have ‘won’ this illusory game of economic competition, it is they too who lose. They are not made more rich but all the more poorer through the accumulation and burial of capital in interest-bearing accounts, in financial markets, in land. Unable to truly recognise the suffering of so many others through their own activity (consciously or otherwise) they have been unable to turn such recognition into an experience of their own humanity. They have, sadly, forgone their own spiritual development, and missed out on experiencing the spiritual and creative fruits of the development of others (including new thoughts about the further development of economic life). They are truly the world’s poor – and yet all of us, and all our global society – share in this impoverishment. Indeed, we contribute to it through our own thinking, feeling and acting with every untrue economic activity we engage in. We all lose an economic game based on the economically untrue paradigm of competition. Only the dark nothingness currently overcoming the world and our own hearts – the same nothingness from which the paradigm of selfish competition originally sprang – only this shall ‘win’ such a game as this. (And then, tragically, we shall have proven Social Darwinism correct, down to the last – the ‘fittest’ – survivor.)

So, if we so wish, let us instead picture the earth with lights glowing not so coldly, but with more warmth, radiating their own light, circulating freely all over the globe, liberating themselves from the darkness that has clouded them for a time (long enough that they may know themselves as separate), and instead radiating selflessly out into the darkness all their flowing, outpouring light. And let us picture the way in which they are able to flow towards one another, not at the speed of electricity, but at the speed of love, flowing wherever they are needed, with whatever they need flowing towards them in order that they may be better able to give their gifts way – in order that they, through their mutual co-workings and conscious connections, are able to create a web of warm, luminous light across the globe – so much so, that, in time, the whole Earth itself is able to stream forth its rays benevolently, as though a sun, into the entire cosmos.

 

John Stubley, Ph.D.


[1] See Gerard Klockenbring, History of Money (England: New Economy Publications, 1985).

[2] See Klockenbring, History of Money.

[3] See Joseph Beuys, What is Money? (UK: Clairview, 2010). Likewise, we cannot, economically speaking, own land, for it is not a commodity. All we have is a right to use it for a particular period of time. Similar things can be said of the application of labour.

[4] Countless examples of the interdependent, rather than competitive, workings of nature could be given. Briefly, one potent example is a caterpillar in Western Australia which requires ants to take it into their nest, as an egg, and to feed it regularly for it to grow into a caterpillar. At first it is taken out to feed on leaves, then, when the caterpillar becomes larger, leaves are brought to it. The ants benefit by eating a substance that the caterpillar secretes as it grows. (For more on this particular relationship, see the oral storytelling of scientist and Noongar elder Noel Nannup.) More generally speaking, when taken as a whole, it is easy to see the completely interdependent activity of nature – activity which is, in itself, sustainable.

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