Tis the Season Past


{continued from Tis the Season: Perspectives on our modern market from gift-giving economies}

        Our earliest economic system, one we inherited from our hominid ancestors was an adaption to our needing to be able to effectively scavenge the carcasses of recently killed large mammals, since we lacked the ability to take them down on our own.  This required individuals coordinating, working together quickly, efficiently, and then sharing.  Evolution predisposed us to working collaboratively, nature gave us an intuitive sense that cooperation deserves mutual caring, equal rewards, and these inclinations led to groups growing in numbers till we came to live in tribal societies, chiefdoms, states and nations, a planet with six billion of our particular kind!

       As our sense of the size of the universe has grown, so has our potential to take on a group-ego whose boundaries reach to the edge of all matter.  Those identities as a family member, a loyal Rotarian, an able bodied fan, a good American are not cause for cessation, nor are any of these diminished by the greater.  The attitude towards others and self, far from being contradictory is conjunctive.  A true love of self and family is one that encourages me to enlarge my circle of caring, even unto all others. Love of humankind, as the great gift-giver Jesus knew, is no abstraction, but caring’s original premise.  His follower, Meister Eckhart said, “If you love yourself, you love everybody else as you do yourself.”

        The modern day chief of the Iroquois, Oren Lyons, was asked to define the People of the Longhouse. “What Natives are about, I think, first of all, is community.  They’re about mutual support, they’re about sharing, they’re about understanding what is common land, common air, common water, common and for all.  They’re about freedom.”  It is by our normal standard a stunning definition.  Now freedom is an understanding that exposes the poverty of, “That’s yours over there, and all on this side of the line is mine.”  This understanding is passionately linked to the sense of boundlessness and the bounty of Creation we live in together.           

       The scream of this essay comes because the economic way of our day is so significantly distanced from the economy of gift-giving and distribution and the sense of unity.  If the older way, wants to be heard—since our ancestors yet care for us—scream it must.  They beckon us to this deep sense of us, and beseech us to an economic style that would be for all of us.  When the Native gives you his precious peace pipe, he is not being disciplined, not gritting his teeth to make himself do something that he actually, really and truly, does not want to do.  Quite the opposite, he is acting from a deeply conscious, genuine sincerity—he wants the economy of constant gift-giving alive and well, he is responsible for it, and this is one act of many that keeps the Way he is devoted to alive.  That image of suppressing his natural desire through gnashed teeth is generated by the distorted lens on human nature that the modern market economy has had my parents fit me with quite soon after my birth.

       The sense of responsibility for my greater Self is one that would rocket me to the task of finding some significant way to share and share alike.  The problem is intractable of course, and the number of ways to go about trying would exceed the number of atoms in the universe, but our ancestors encourage us to get going in some form of constant giving with special, even festive occasions set aside for a deeper level doing of the business of equity.  When we have this sense of being Us, then I need to be able to see each and all doing okay for me to be happy.  That “each and all” may not be perfect, but it ought be good enough for the salesman’s route to feel doggone efficient and even get easier and easier.

       The merchant does not possess his product in order to give it, but to profit from it. On the other hand, gifts support an affluence when they remain gifts, have liveliness, flow.  But if the commodity moves to make a profit, then the gift moves towards the black hole… and the universe or Whole loses out, it’s gone.  In the reciprocal economy, the gift leaves my hand and heads off with another, not a final death.  Yes, I am now empty-handed and quite possibly in need… but in the economy of gift-giving, my emptiness pulls gently at the Whole until replenished.  Gifts have an instinct for the empty, so that when I give, another gift comes to my available hand.  The Lord fills the empty womb of Sarah and Hannah with the greatest of gifts: Ike and the Prophet Samuel.  When Jesus sends his disciples on their missions, he recommends this economic style of being.

       When the motto of the economy has to do with the fittest surviving rather than having for the sake of giving, then wealth loses its motion and gathers in isolated pools we call plutocrats.  Though history courses may lead us to think plutocrats are hard-set in the nature of societies, they are in fact the peculiar outcome of quite particular choices that have cultured a false consciousness.  The plutocrat is nothing like the chief who holds the wealth to insure the health of all. He is anything but determined to redistribute.  More than one recent study concerning the attitudes of these elite indicates diminished empathy for the rest.  “I did this,” creates a disdain for those who were either too lazy or did not have the smarts to do what I did.  It is an identity steeped in a sense of entitlement.  It is an identity many chasms’ distance from “us.”

       The plutocrats reside at the peak of a system, the market economy, whose particular ideology is so successful that it is seen by the masses as natural.  Hegemony refers to the rhetoric of a ruling ideology that has become so effective that it has the loyalty of the many even though it acts against their interests.  How might it work?  We are a nation of “Haves and Will Haves.”  Kitsch art keeps us engrossed with those who have power, give orders that are obeyed immediately, have access to luxuries far exceeding anyone else, and are sought after by all.  Even the kid growing up in relative poverty knows that he’ll make it there some day, as surely as he’ll make the NBA.  “Strive to succeed,” Horatio Alger still says, “and you will.”  It is the great tall tale of the American centuries.  How many of these kids will grow up to be parents who tragically think—even as they work two jobs—that their lack of effort or talent is the cause of their children not having more… simply because that choice of thoughts is so slyly positioned in the mentality of this economic ideology.  That is hegemony.

       At work in the persuasive hegemony of our moment is a general brand of faulting the government, a dramatic throwing up of the arms to show the futility of the whole government thing followed by an outraged shout for It to just get out of our lives.  Of course that “getting out of the way” includes fewer taxes and restrictions that might actually give the structure an adjustment resulting in a better balance of wealth as well as needed services becoming equally available for all… under the Law.  Today’s hegemony does not want the tribe, the chiefdom, the canton, the whole to have a voice, for it would undoubtedly be too concerned, as is Jesus’ Father, with those in need, even to the point of wanting them to have equal share in all. If we got our teaching right, what might most impress that child who now grows up imagining wealth, power, and a starting guard position, would be the contemplation of a Creator and a society Who loves each and every one of us fully, richly, and effectively.  Sure, he ought to want to play for the Celtics someday, but a right-minded education would also encourage him and her to want to be part of that effective love for each and all and proud of being part of something so wonderful and extraordinary!

       As is, our culture is not one reflecting that kind of attitude of caring.  Ours is a culture all too familiar with the desire to be “better than you,” “one of a kind,” “the stand-out,” “victor.” Though George Washington wanted us to have nothing to do with a hierarchical monarchy, the plutocrats do have their dukes and knights, the Wall Street analysts and traders occupying levels of wealth just below.  Asked if he felt grateful for the government’s recent bailout, one broker replied to the inquiring journalist, “The government bail out of the financial industry was a necessity.  The fact that I benefited from the bailout is because I’m smart and know how to take advantage of a situation, which 95% of the population wouldn’t have the sense to do.” 

       The market economy’s power of persuasion has been terribly successful.  The poor kid’s declaration that “My turn will come, and I’m not going to just wait in line, either,” implies that the present system he will rise to the top of sure better not disappear… his training is devoted to that economic sport.  In the 19th century, thirty-six million French peasants, duped by Louis Bonaparte’s good-sounding political rhetoric—you can own your own land—acted against their own interests, and were left straddled with mortgage debt greater than the entire national debt of the British Empire, while making merchants roll in the wealth.  What did the French peasant get?  Millions were consigned to quarters like caves, most with one window, that wound up being a debt they passed on to their children.  Where is our support being channeled?  What are we doing for our children’s children?

       As the plutocrat is not in the very nature of social living, so this quest for economic suzerainty is a cheapening and twisting of our natural inclination.  What is more natural and would serve us well if returned to the philosophic helm of our economy?  Our first philosopher, Thales of Miletus, said, “If there is neither excessive wealth nor immoderate poverty in a nation, then justice may be said to prevail.”  Both Athens—“Nothing in excess” is inscribed on the Oracle at Delphi—and Jerusalem—“give me neither poverty nor riches” reads the Proverb—knew it. 

       And we’ve know the better way from thinkers closer to home, too.  Thoreau considered a man rich in proportion to the things he could afford to let alone.  He was on to something; recent studies indicate that people living their core values don’t aim for lower consumption as a conscious goal, yet lower consumption happens in the wake of increased activity in church, book clubs, sports leagues, theater groups, music sessions, and ongoing education.  This is no call to an ascetic ideal, but a resumption of normalcy.  The consumer lifestyle is a recent and radical departure from the conserving orientation that human cultures have developed over centuries.  That conserving orientation is not alien to the American way either: a spirit of resourcefulness is a part of our identity just waiting to get fuller playing time.  In becoming a nation of able backyard and urban gardeners, bikers, in wearing organic cotton clothes, and being on call in a special assistance reserve force, we are not vainly returning to a distant past, but carrying a tradition into a Day our Dobe ju’Hoansi and Punan cousins would be proud of.

       In employee-owned cooperatives, businesses from depositor-owned banks to fair trade coffee exchanges and dairy creameries we find the older economic styles being expressed in a hopeful new manifestion suited to our day.  The cooperative economy movement is one that keeps service of people, both workers and clients, at the fore, rather than maximizing profits.  These various businesses and communities actively work for the spread of economic power in contrast to capitalism’s dedication to the concentration of wealth in the hands of so very few. The conscious aim of many involved in this “creative commons” is our being able to rationally say someday, “I belong to a caring, worthwhile whole in which our shared life flourishes.”                                            

        Honoring living on less while making sure all have enough is no draconian call but the intelligent and caring principle of a big-minded people.  In becoming a society dedicated to diminishing class distinctions, we are also becoming a society dedicated to a greater me and a greater you.  Now there’s a gift worth passing on to the seventh generation to come!  Odds are, they’ll be sure to know to keep it going.

                                                 Bob Minder



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