Economic Egregores: How Belief Drives the Power of Money and What We Can Do About It

“[S]ince it has become increasingly clear that stocks, and even money itself, is entirely based on a perception of value, which is by nature subjective and mutable, the only question becomes how that perception of value is influenced? And who is doing the influencing?”

From Sable Aradia

dollar-bills-dawn-hudson
Dollar Bills by Dawn Hudson. Courtesy Publicdomainimages.net.

A thoughtform is a semi-autonomous manifestation created when someone — or several someones — will it, or believe it, into being. As of that point, it is no longer entirely subject to the will of its creator(s), but in essence, acts and reacts in its own way. It has no physical reality as we understand it, but it has a virtual reality; it might as well be real because we engage with it as if it is. Which, in a sense, makes it real.

An egregore is a thoughtform that has been created by a group, and it influences the thoughts and actions of the group that engages with it. But it is also influenced by the thoughts and actions of these same people.

This is not a unique concept to the occult: William Gibson wrote about what he called “semiotic ghosts” in popular culture. To me, it was evident he was talking about egregores. I wrote an article about this recently at Between the Shadows.

The examples of a corporation and a meme are probably excellent ones for a modern reader. A corporation exists independently of its creators. The Board of Directors, the shareholders, and the employees who work for it, can change completely — leave, die, or be replaced — and yet the corporation continues.

In our modern age, money is also an egregore, and this is why it has no physical value (after all, money is no longer backed by a gold standard.) Its perceived value governs its real value on the world market. The two are effectively one and the same.

It’s extremely difficult for one person to significantly alter the nature of an egregore. A person who wants to will such a change would have to convince a majority of the other people who engage with the egregore that its nature has already changed. For example, these major brands either started their lives as Nazi corroborators, or developed significantly as corporations while doing so, but of course we no longer make these associations with them.

There was an excellent object lesson in the transformation of an egregore in the 1990s in Brazil. Plagued by runaway inflation, Brazil embraced a daring plan; they created a new currency to restore people’s faith in money. They called it the Unit of Real Value (Unidade real de valor)(1). And it was entirely fake. No bills or coins were ever printed. It was intended to absorb the effects of hyperinflation and was set at a fixed value of parity to the U.S. dollar.

Instead, people developed more confidence in the URV than in the cruzeiro real, which was the legal-tender Brazilian currency, and it replaced Brazil’s legal currency. Officially it was “extinguished” and replaced with a legal-tender currency called the real on July 1, 1994.

A semi-virtual currency exists in Canada in the form of Canadian Tire money. This is effectively Monopoly money that is given out by Canadian Tire as a reward for shopping at their stores. It’s a fraction of the value of what you bought; a very early loyalty program.

But many places in Canada began accepting Canadian Tire money as well as real money, because why not? Canadian Tire doesn’t really care where it came from, because at one point or another it came from their store, and you can still exchange it there for real goods.

Unfortunately Canadian Tire is now trying to force their clientele to go to a card system instead, citing a risk of criminal enterprises making use of their alternate currency as an excuse. I’m sure that’s a real threat: criminal enterprises profit enormously from the existence of shadow economies that don’t depend upon the whim of the World Bank. But then again, so would we.

One might also consider the bitcoin bubble. Bitcoin is an entirely virtual currency that has a certain perceived value; and it has that value because of that perception.

That’s not a new concept either. Stock values are also entirely influenced by perceived values. One of the flaws in our current economic system that is coming to a point of reckoning is that stock values can plummet, not because a company has lost money, but because it has not gained as much as people thought it would. Twitter and Facebook both recently bore a significant loss of stock value because their growth, falsely projected on false identities and bot accounts which political pressure has forced them to limit, was not as great as those false projections had assumed it would be.

insecurity-dollar-symbol-john-hain
Insecurity Dollar Symbol by John Hain. Courtesy Publicdomainimages.net.

What this tells us is that any free market theory is fatally flawed. It is assumed in the study of free market economics that stock value changes based on information. Traders become aware of trends, new technology, expansions, etc. which will increase the income-making potential of a corporation.

But since it has become increasingly clear that stocks, and even money itself, is entirely based on a perception of value, which is by nature subjective and mutable, the only question becomes how that perception of value is influenced? And who is doing the influencing?

The question then becomes for the magician: how can we best utilize egregores? Can we make significant changes to the harmful effects of existing egregores, such as the value of currency and how it is determined?

Marx said that in order to address income inequality, workers must control the means of production. But he failed to visualize the development of technology and the value of virtual goods. How do you control the means of production when all the production is virtual?

I think the answer is that the common people must direct the egregores instead. Right now, we have been absorbed by the semiotic ghosts of futility, apathy, and the inequalities of capitalism. And Money has become a god in and of itself. To combat this, we must embrace new egregores, and helpful, older egregores, like the Enlightened Rebel and the Will of the People.

To change the perceived value of money, and who has it, we need to re-think what we’re basing that value on. Right now, the world thinks of money in terms of national currencies, so the perceived economic well-being of nations is what drives the world economy. This creates haves and have-nots by nature. It’s dependent on the idea that some nations have more economic value than others.

It’s also, in part, determined by corporations. The more big corporations a country is perceived to have, and the bigger their stock values, the more valuable their currency is perceived to be.

Canadian Tire money erodes that economy just a little bit, because it takes a small fraction of the value of currency out of the hands of governments and stock traders, and puts it into the hands of consumers. Still not great; still capitalism, but a more decentralized capitalism.

Bitcoin is an early attempt to rethink the way we value currency. It has established a currency value on information. Bits of data are what form the essential unit of a bitcoin. But the flaw of this approach is that those who control information can control the value of a bitcoin, which is why it has already achieved a speculation bubble that makes it completely unattainable for regular people.

Perhaps we should come back to Marx. Perhaps we should be basing the value of currency on labour-units. One hour of labour might equal one credit, which could buy one full meal. Think of how wealthy artists would be! Of course I can’t think of a way to track that which wouldn’t risk intense violations of privacy. No change of this nature would be quick or easy, and each would have its own drawbacks and unintended consequences that we would have to consider, and deal with.

The question for us is: what do we consider to be of real value? And what would we like the economy of the future to look like? Which egregores should we give power to?


  1. I think it’s worth noting just how difficult this reference was to find. I remembered hearing something on a YouTube video about this and I went searching for a reference to write this article. I typed “South American country that created an alternate currency” into Google. This yielded an article called “How Fake Money Saved Brazil,” which originally came from the NPR website. It’s referenced by a plethora of other blogs and articles, but you can’t get access to that article anymore; just a couple of forums where people sneer at the idea, despite the fact that it demonstrably worked. I finally found the name of the currency — “Unit of Real Value” — in a snippet from a site that might be an archive of the Wayback Machine from a site called Neatorama.com. I searched this on Google and finally found the Wikipedia entry, listed only under its Portuguese name. Now why was this so hard to find? The most benign answer I can come up with is racism. I suspect it’s a lot more complex.

Sable Aradia

I’m a Pagan and speculative fiction author, a professional blogger, and a musician. I’m proudly Canadian and proudly LGBTQ. My politics are decidedly left and if you ask for my opinion, expect an honest answer. I owned a dog, whom I still miss very much, and am still owned by a cat. I used to work part time at a bookstore and I love to read, especially about faith, philosophy, science, and sci-fi and fantasy.


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Book Review: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Capitalism! The American Dream! Except that what we believe about capitalism, and how it actually works, are two different things. We’ve been told that the essence of preserving the economy involves making things better for the wealthy, so that they will make bigger companies and hire more people for more jobs, and thus the crumbs of their good fortune will “trickle down” to the rest of us. Except that it’s not true; wealthy people won’t part with their wealth unless regulations force them to.

We are told that the American Dream rewards the hard-working and the worthy, and that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. Except that it’s not true; people in poorer countries are more entrepreneurial than people in wealthier countries, and good infrastructure is the key to building the wealth of nations.

We are told that you must pay good CEOs and Directors of large corporations top dollar so that you will get the best. Except that it’s not true; Board Directors often make decisions that are best for them in the short term, and really bad for the company itself in the long term (fancy that!) And by the way, you’re probably wrong about how much they’re getting paid. Most people think it should be about 10 times what the average worker in their companies get paid, and they think it’s actually more like 30 times. But they’re wrong; it’s really more like 300-400 times as much!

We are told that what’s good for the shareholders of a company is good for the company overall. Except that it’s not true; shareholders want to buy low and sell high, and quickly, and that means that often decisions are made in companies to cut corners, cheat, and patch instead of fix, until the whole structure collapses. Like with pretty much every automobile company you’ve ever heard of, and several large airlines.

We are told that the free market economy is the best way to handle things, because market forces will ultimately balance everything out. Except that it’s not true; there is actually no such thing as a “free market economy;” governments and corporations fix the conditions of the market all the time. So could we; and so we have in some ways, which is why “fossey jaw” is a thing of the past.

We are told that education is essential to the future wealth of a nation. Except that this isn’t true either; there’s almost no correlation. What drives the wealth of nations is actually manufacturing.

Don’t believe me? That’s okay; Ha-Joon Chang is a Cambridge trained economist who has won prizes for his work, and he’ll tell you better than I can, with figures to back it up. And he’ll explain it in a way that even an arts major like me can clearly understand.

I can’t say enough good things about this book! If you, like me, see the rot at the core of our economic system but you lack the words to tell people why it’s rotten, this is the book for you. If you don’t understand economics and you want to learn without taking a course, this is the book for you. If you think that capitalism is the best thing since sliced bread, and you think lefties are wingnuts who don’t understand how the world really works, this is still the book for you because you can acid-test your theories against an educated dissenting opinion. I wish that my Prime Minister would read it because I think he would run things a little differently if he did.

Over the next couple of months I’ll be writing an extended series focused around the theories presented in this book on Gods & Radicals if you want to know more.

View all my reviews

Report From Greece, Part 2

by George Caffentzis & Silvia Federici

If you missed it, check out Part 1 of this Report From Greece.

George Caffentzis on The Commons, Russian Workers, and Capitalists

Marx wrote of the non-coincidence of desires between Russian capitalists and workers:

“…even when [the capitalists] have money, the labor power is not available in sufficient quantity and at the right time. This is because the Russian agricultural worker, owing to the common ownership of the soil by the village community, is not yet fully separated from his means of production and is then still not a ‘free wage-laborer’ in the full sense of the term. But the presence of such ‘free wage-laborers’ throughout society is the indispensible condition without which M-C, the transformation of money into commodities, cannot take the form of the transformation of money capital into productive capital.”
(Capital vol 2, p. 117 of the Penguin edition).

Something similar could be said of Greek workers. The capitalist task of the crisis is to end whatever remains of the commons in their lives and make workers fully “free wage laborers” coincident with capital’s “lust for labor.”

The First anti-Syriza Demonstrations

An Athenian anarchist friend suggested that we should go to a demonstration in Syntagma Square called to protest Syriza’s willingness to sign a new memorandum with the “troika,” although we have as yet no concrete knowledge as to the contents of the new Memorandum. Since the whole affair is being presented in the form of a soccer match, why shouldn’t another team enter the field? Perhaps they will score a surprise goal! But at the moment all eyes are on LeGuard, Draghi and the faceless IMF “technocrats” versus the heroic Tsipras, who delays by putting ever higher bids, and rolling the debt one time more until it is time itself that becomes the issue.

3 July, 2015: Greek referendum 2015: demonstration for voting NO at Syntagma square, Athens Greece. Photo by Ggia (CC BY-SA 4.0).
3 July, 2015: Greek referendum 2015: demonstration for voting NO at Syntagma square, Athens Greece. Photo by Ggia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Well, in Syntagma Square the initial rally was small—with predictable statements. But soon it was joined by another demonstration that marched to Syntagma from another part of the city and so the whole rally numbered about a thousand (respectable by NYC standards, but very small by Greek). The groups sponsoring the march and rally included, anarchists, autonomists, and even some Trotskyites. Sure enough I saw an old friend who happened to be a well-known Greek Trotskyite. We would see each other often in the 1990s in NYC, but he stopped coming to the US after 9/11, while my political affiliations in Greece became more defined in the post 9/11 period as well. To the point that we hadn’t seen each other in a decade. During that time he had a bout with liver cancer involving many surgeries and chemo-therapy sessions. The cancer would have killed him if it hadn’t been for his decision to go to France and get medical help there. The decision was motivated by another decision of the Greek medical authorities who ordered an anti-cancer drug for him that was needed immediately but with a 3 month expected time of delivery! The French doctors declared him cancer-free a few years ago, but he must return to France every 4 months to check his status.

My Trotskyite friend prided himself on the books he wrote and the political campaigns he was involved in while in the midst of his treatment, as he should. And now he wants to live to be part of the international working class revolution! The march was beginning again, going down Panapistemiou St. My Trotskyite friend took his place at the end and was off!

Trying to Raise the Spectre of Syntagma Square 2011

At first there was a small circle on the square, but it grew over time. At first it was mostly an older crowd, but slowly younger people joined. The intention is to call for a new decision-making body based on popular assemblies to replace the Vouli (the Parliament) that was de-legitimated by the actions of both left and right parties. One speaker after another noted a discrepancy between the extreme situation being faced and the lack of any force from the bottom to intervene! However, only one woman spoke and she addressed a logistic question: how long should each speaker be allotted, 3 or 5 minutes?

There ought to be a movement of the Syntagma Square 2015, but it remained just that, an ought.

A Run on the Banks in Sparta After the Call for a Referendum

On Saturday morning I woke up in Sparta and looked out from the hotel balcony down Paleologou Street and saw that there were lines in front of the ATMs. I wondered what this was about. On going downstairs for breakfast I learned that the night before Tsipras and his advisors walked out of a meeting with the “troika” and called for a referendum on the question, should the final memorandum the troika offered be accepted or not? The immediate response by the Greek populace was this minor “run on the banks,” minor since there are limits as how much can be withdrawn from ATMs per day. We shall see what will happen on Monday when the banks will be open for business. Will this minor run become a massive charge on the banks’ reserves? There was definitely a feeling of panic spreading on the lines in front of the street. I also felt it. I was prompted to take out extra euro cash (in a classic bow to Keynesian “liquidity preference”) because, though I would simply be contributing to the banks’ reserve of dollars, I too would be impacted by the lack of euro currency that would inevitably be experienced by some of the weaker banks (if not the whole banking system, if a “holiday” is called by the government).

This “preference,” however, has a primal feel about it: contagious, violent, irrational. A condition typified by an audience fleeing a minor fire, crushing each other to death trying to get to an exit!

The Taxi Driver’s Lament

He is a large man, both in height and breadth, and a small business man as well. I wondered whether he would try to short change me by insisting on the meter (which stated 63 euros) instead of the 55 euros I understood from George’s agreement last night with him. The taxi driver stuck to the original deal. This is definitely a time of distrust mingled with solidarity! Here are some quotes from his conversation with me on the road to Gythion:

“In Greece there is a saying, ‘The rich man is one with nothing; those with much, lose it to the tax man.’ ”
A Buddhist adage?

“Greece has the worst politicians and the worst drivers on the planet.”
A Platonic truth?

“I have worked since I was 13 and now I’m on the verge of losing it all. Take this taxi. I spent 130,000 euros for it, 30,000 for the car and 100,000 euros for the taxi driver’s medallion. Now the medallion costs 20,000 euros and falling…soon it will be worth 2,000 euros, but still my brother and I need to work as taxi-drivers to make something. I have one kid and my brother has three. We need to leave them something.”
A small businessman’s Abrahamic statement?

A Taxi Passenger’s Lament

Heard from a taxi passenger: When I flew in from Frankfurt to Athens I was very tired (it was night) so I decided to take a cab home. As I got into the cab I noticed a sign saying, “Flat Rate to Athens 35 euros.” So I settled back to enjoy the ride, but I was getting a little worried (as we were getting close to home) that he might short-change me. Sure enough, when we got to the door of my house I handed him 35 euros, he said, “It is 50 euros.” I began to protest and pointed to the sign. He said, “Thirty five euro is for the day, it is 50 euros for the night.” I said, “The sign said nothing about night or day.” The driver said, “Well, let’s go to the police station to straighten this out.” I didn’t want to go to the police station, but nor did he. So I said, to break the stalemate, “Let’s settle this with fists!” He laughed and said, “The 35 is o.k.,” and off he went.

Bank “Holiday” in Paradise

Message appearing on ATMs following the announcement of Greek bailout referendum. The message informs about the closure of banks from 29 June to 6 July and the 60 euro withdrawal per day per card. Photo by SucreRouge (CC BY-SA 4.0) .
Message appearing on ATMs following the announcement of Greek bailout referendum. The message informs about the closure of banks from 29 June to 6 July and the 60 euro withdrawal per day per card. Photo by SucreRouge (CC BY-SA 4.0) .

I am in Agios Dimitrios in the Mani with comrades from Switzerland, writing this on a terrace overlooking the Messenian Bay, it would seem I am in the midst of Paradise, without a care in the world! But I write this also on the first “bank Holiday” in Greece in many years, i.e., the government has ordered the banks to be closed and to distribute cash to depositors at a rate of 60 euros a day through ATMs.

What a strange name for this day…a holiday. What god is being honored, if not the God of Banks: the money form? This god presents itself as the universal mediator between non-coincident desires, but these days it is becoming an angry God that is denying all desires (coincident as well as non-coincident). So that capitalists are looking for cash to make more cash and the rest are looking for cash to keep body and soul together.

This is the first day that the debt crisis has hit the immediate lives of Greeks (and even visitors). The long queues in front of the ATMs tell the tale of anxiety and panic…but even worse is the lack of queues, indicating a machine that is out of cash!

I too am caught in this anxiety and panic, though to a lesser degree, because I can get as many euros I want from the ATMs, but I need to find one that is functioning and has cash. This is increasingly difficult since, most crucially, this availability depends on the euros lodged in the banks as cash!

A system of exchange of commodities is becoming a non-system of non-exchange of non-commodities, leaving in its wake gift exchanges and gratis offerings. What was considered a solid way to solve the problem of non-coincident desires has vanished into air, but it also has an escape hatch. Like the staircase from the inferno to purgatory, it takes time to get to and climb. The Syriza people seem to have the intention to do this without a Virgil. Such a trick is unlikely to succeed unless they are expert secret keepers or master game theoreticians! That we shall see, when this holiday in Paradise ends.

The OXI vote: Syriza’s Machiavellianism and the Anti-austerity Movement

Vox populi, vox Dei,”[“The voice of the people, [is] the voice of God”] is a phrase from a letter written by Alcuin, an advisor of Chalemagne’s who was an early “founder” of the Holy Roman Emire and often taken as the founder of Europe. In the letter Alcuin warns the Emperor not to pay heed to those (like myself) who use the phrase affirmatively. But if the adage is true, what is God saying through the July 5th, 2015 referendum in Greece? That has much to do with what the question being voted on.

A protestor outside the Greek parliament building on 29 June 2015, holding a sign reading "ΟΧΙ" στην  ΕΞΌΝΤΩΣΗ ("no to annihilation"). Photo by janwellman (CC BY-SA 3.0).
A protestor outside the Greek parliament building on 29 June 2015, holding a sign reading “ΟΧΙ” στην ΕΞΌΝΤΩΣΗ (“no to annihilation”). Photo by janwellman (CC BY-SA 3.0).

This question was not a general one like “Should pensions be further cut?” or “Should the right to strike be preserve in the new labor laws?” or “Should any new austerity policies be prohibited?” It was quite specific, i.e., “Should the memorandum proposed by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, European Commission [aka “the troika”] on Thursday, June 27, 2015 be accepted (“NAI”) or rejected (“OXI”).”

As some critics pointed out, the referendum question had no proper answer, since the “troika” had already taken the memorandum “off the table.” So the vote came down to what the voter wanted it to mean: e.g., “No more pension cuts” or “End austerity policies” or “Greece out of the Eurozone” or a thousand other critiques of the present or nothing precise at all or anything Tsipras and Syriza want it to mean. The referendum’s wording made God speak ambiguously that Sunday through the Greek people’s voice.

In trying to make sense of the peculiar wording of the referendum I saw not so much game-theory in action but a Machiavellian aspect of Syriza, a failed Machiavellianism, however, since Machiavellian reasoning in politics is defeated when it is identified as Machiavellianism! First, the call for a referendum appeared to be a spontaneous response to the troika’s stony refusal to accept some milder structural adjustment measures and a reduction of the debt payments schedule at least. But I learned that the call for the referendum was discussed for months before, within the inner circle of Syriza. So the wording of the referendum was not a hurried decision made in a fit of anger and frustration.

The second Machiavellian point was Tsipras’s claim that an “OXI” vote would give him more power to negotiate with the troika. In other words, the heat of the voter’s insurrection, their gigantic “OXI,” would be useful in frightening his negotiating partners. The attempt to use the anger of Greek workers–who have been degraded on many levels since 2010 and given an avenue for its expression by the referendum—was problematic, since once it is expressed, it cannot be withdrawn. Many said that they voted “OXI” simply because of their refusal to be terrorized by the fears unleashed by the propaganda of the media. This is not a sentiment that can be turned on and off for the benefit of IMF bureaucrats and hedge-fund capitalists.

The third Machiavellian point is Syriza’s refusal to make preparations for taking Greek monetary transactions out of the Eurozone. This was not a technical matter but would have involved the education of the proletariat, capitalists and state employees in the consequences of changing currencies. Even a simple thing like having a few trucks filled with the currency of a possible future money system would have done a lot to “concentrate the mind” of wageworkers (after all, most capitalist-to-capitalist money transactions, outside of the drug trade, are not done in cash). The decision confused both the troika and the Greek working class.

The denouement of this failed Machiavellianism could be seen in Syriza’s proposal sent to the troika five days after the referendum. In that period the voters’ “OXI” was supposed to have shaken up European capitalism, but that did not happen. Neither the exchange rate for the Euro nor the major stock markets of Europe crashed. This lack of response spoke volumes in a language that neoliberals understand. So Tsipras presented the Syriza government’s proposal to the troika on Thursday, July 9. It turns out that this proposal is similar to the memorandum Syriza asked Greeks to reject in the referendum. Liz Alderman, in a nice piece of journalism, compared Tsipras’s and the “troika’s” proposals and she found little difference, e.g., the two proposals with respect to taxation are identical as were the proposed changes in the pension system. Ironically, the major difference was in mililtary spending. The troika’s proposal asks for 400 million euro cut while the Syriza proposal asks for a 100 million euro cut this year.

Silvia Federici, on the broader context of what is happening in Greece

The situation in Greece manifests a double crisis: the crisis of capitalism in Europe, as reflected in the politics of the German Government, and the crisis of the European working-class and the European left.

The politics of Syriza should be de-personalized. They have mismanaged the negotiations but their options were limited given that neither they nor the Greek people ever seriously considered leaving the Eurozone and, for example, turning to Russia for loans. The European Union has become a fetish for the Left, the ideological campaign of ‘Europeism’ has been successful, generating among most a great fear at the idea of leaving the Eurozone.

The Marxist autonomist Left is guilty of the same disease. The formation of a Eurozone has been hailed (to this day, see the recent conference on the crisis in Athens) as a terrain of working class re-composition, but actually we have seen that this has not been the case. Greece has confronted the battle with the European central bank and Bruxelles by itself. No mobilization, no significant expression of solidarity has cone from other countries. This lack of solidarity is especially worrisome, since the working classes of Europe have faced a decade and a half of austerity and structural adjustment and should know the implications of the disciplining of Greece.

By 1998 the EU had imposed on all its members a “Stability Pact” that prevented them from having deficits larger than 3%, forcing them to practically stop all payments, so they could not pay the companies that had been working for them and who eventually went bankrupt. In Italy even victims of an earthquake in Emilia could not be helped explicitly because of the budgetary limits even though the municipalities where the earthquake occurred did have the money necessary. Yet, there were no large demonstrations in London, Paris, Madrid, Rome or Berlin supporting the insurrectional “OXI” vote as a harbinger of their own rejection of austerity.

Even in front of a massive media attack stressing among other things that other workers in Europe would have to pay for the Greek debt.

Syriza never conceived of leaving the Eurozone, never prepared for it, in this, however, reflecting the ambivalence of the Greek/ European population. Clearly people expected more “understanding.” Syriza kept talking of a “humanitarian crisis” rather than a class conflict. The problem however was that the situation the EU is facing does not allow any margin of compromise. The possibility for Greece to default but continue to stay in the Eurozone is ruled by the crisis in which European capital finds itself. The European Union project is in crisis, it has not produced the profitability for which it was created, on the contrary, it is an area of non-accumulation. In this context, Germany is attempting to create a different Europe, “liberated” from countries like Greece that are seen as unproductive, so that can better compete and negotiate with the US and China. In the meantime, Germany too is facing a crisis, because it will have to pay the Greek debt, which cannot be paid by Greece, and will have to abide by the decisions of the US with regard to its relation to Russia (being forced, for instance, to participate in the attack on Ukraine, thereby being prevented from forming any alliance with Russia.)

From a class perspective the crisis, however, is (a) the lack of coordination and solidarity among European working classes; (b) the inability of European working class to delink from capital and the political class, despite the obvious attack to which it is being subjected which will be generalized and intensified in years to come if the TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is realized; (c) the inability of the European left to distinguish between the Europe of the bosses and the Europe of the proletariat and its commitment to a Europeanism that is suicidal, preventing a ‘rupture.’ If Greece had left the Eurozone, it could have triggered a real process of re-composition, instead of being used to discipline all the workers in the other countries, who every night have been reminded of what can happen to them if they step out of line, and reject the reforms imposed on them.

The only bright spot is the referendum, which was the first loud NO to globalization in Europe and, as some have noted, a Latin American moment in European class politics. The No! of Greece could have also begun a confrontation with EU politics that is now redirected against immigrants, as the case of Italy demonstrates. Unfortunately only the right wing in Europe now speaks against ‘Europe’.

The situation with immigrants. In the spring of 2015, 950 immigrants died – Now, everyday, boats with hundreds of people arrive. The government sends them to
different localities, forcing municipalities to accept a certain number, but now citizens are revolting, and the right-wing is fomenting the revolt. More immigrants continue to die. The rightwing calls for a naval blockade, to push them back and tells the government that to save them is wrong, because more will come. They say the government should give no assistance. In reality this is what is actually happening. France has closed the frontiers.

On Social Solidarity Health Clinics

Syriza’s refusal to prepare the working class in Greece of what an alternative to continuing with “humiliating” negotiations with the troika has been widely noted. This observation was even more problematic to those trying to understand Syriza’s strategy, since only if there was a credible threat to carry out a successful exodus from the Eurozone could have the Tsipras-Varoufakis team have won any substantial debt-relief in the first place. One way to explain this anomaly is by assuming that the Syriza leadership simply thought that taking any path out of the Eurozone would be too onerous for Greek workers and capitalists. Greece in this period was definitely inundated with terrifying images of a post-euro world without petrol, without doctors and medicines, without food, in short, a wasteland of repression, illness and violence…a Mad Max world, Greek-style.

But there was already a model of an escape from such a scenario in the more than 40 Social Solidarity Health Clinics (SSHC) that could be found in most of the cities of Greece. Most of these SSHCs were founded in the crisis, especially after the Syntagma Square occupation in 2011. They now involve thousands of doctors, nurses and pharmacists and they see tens of thousands of patients a year. They provide first level health care from doctors and nurses who are working for no pay. They began with the crisis to work with immigrants who were often turned away from public and private hospitals. Greek patients in the SSHCs were few because they (even if poor and uninsured) tended to avoid them since they assumed that anything that served the immigrants must be of low quality. But as the crisis deepened and more and more Greeks were laid-off, increasingly the patients in these clinics became more integrated at the bottom of the wage scale. Throughout Greece the SSHCs have become a remarkable pole of attraction in recent years, and they have played an important role in providing health care services to tens of thousands at a moment when the hospital system was deteriorating due to strictures on public investment on social reproduction.

I was invited to attend a discussion among volunteers at SSHCs from Athens, Thessaloniki, and Crete. The encounter was prefaced by the following self-description:

At the current situation of intensified deregulation of our lives, as in recent years, the Solidarity Clinics have been a Social Safety Net. The only one in such a broad scale. And this is a fact which cannot be appropriated by any government, party or official institutional body. The fact that we continue to operate has nothing to do with an expectation to get things done as it was before. We have nowhere to return to. And this is a conscious choice. In any situation of political and social instability we know that today we have the social relationships and the necessary experience to maintain an active role in social developments.

Here are some notes I took of the frank and open discussion:

  • We do “community medicine,” but it needs to be enlivened by new thinking and this new thinking must come from the patients. But it takes time to get new thoughts. Moreover, it is difficult to bring patients in for a general meeting. For example, we recently telephoned 400 patients to come to a meeting to discuss the project and only 30 came. But still, we are not a philanthropy!
  • We were originally driven to do our medicine out of need, but soon we started to deal with medicine in a political way.
  • We are formulating a third way of delivering health services (i.e., neither in the state mode nor as a private enterprise). We are thinking we are doing medicine as a common and we are using other terms—like “autonomy” and “real democracy”—as well to describe the kind of medicine we are trying to do.
  • We have a problem with the left-wing government of Syriza, even though many thought it would save the situation, But that has not happened. In actual fact, the uninsured are the majority in the country. No solution. And even when there is government support, it requires too much paperwork!
  • People become tired. At times we feel that some of our colleagues are doing the work out of duty. They don’t feel the same way we do.
  • We don’t want to deal with the state. We don’t want to comply with the state’s directives.

Athens after “OXI!”

The city seems to be on vacation after the “OXI!” The traffic is lighter, the tourists are fewer, the smog lighter, the shops (that are still surviving) often closed, except for the cafes, restaurants, and tavernas. I’m feeling the pulse of the city’s circulatory system slowing down, and even at odd moments stopping, as if the summer heat had turned to capital and just said, “Stamata!” (“Basta!”)

A CALL FOR AN INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY
MUTUAL AID NETWORK
SUPPORT SOCIAL STRUGGLE IN GREECE

The below statement is from the Social Solidarity Clinic in Iraklio who are collaborating with other clinics, social centers and movements to create a network from below to receive concrete forms of solidarity.

Please sign and contact at info@koinoniaher.gr

#ThisIsACoup
12 July 2015, Euro Summit

A surprise for some. Not a surprise for others. In either case, there is a lasting question. How is a response from below possible to counteract and negate the totalizing financialization of our lives?

There is not one political answer to this. However, a political point needs to be stressed. Support is not needed for an inter-class, ethnocentric peoples—the Greeks.
Support is needed for the struggle from below taking place in Greece. It is the State, first, that homogenizes the differentiated impact of austerity—due to class, age, gender, location, and way of life—under a national identity. To accept austerity, for each MoU, a respective national responsibility. And for five years—nationalization or austerity—the two remedies to choose from.

We choose differently. What is urgent, for us, is to collectivize (not homogenize) individual risk—due to personal debt, job precarity, lessened or no access to health services and good nutrition and the internalization of guilt and shame.

This is the 2nd call for the International Solidarity-Mutual Aid Network. To meet acute and longterm needs in Greece. From/to self-organized initiatives. The aim is to make visible, to demonstrate the efficacy of and put into practice an alternative form of Social Solidarity vis a vis the form of Institutional Solidarity—the EU-ECB-IMF institutions and the new austerity program by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) of the Eurozone.

To clarify. The call is not a contingent choice. It follows our broader effort to develop a different approach to healthcare. On a social, rather than individual, level. Solidarity, reciprocity, equity, without any distinction as to race, color, origin, sexual orientation or religion. Essential elements. For multifactorial healthcare. Not medicalized assessment. For treating human as a bio-psycho-social whole. Not reduction of human to any individual symptom. For deinstitutionalisation. Not charity, medicine for profit, or neoliberal de-hospitalization via closures, privatization and criminalization. For social emancipation.

The plan is to start from, and have at the core of this network, autonomous solidarity health clinics—the sites experimenting on the basis of non-capitalist forms of labor, non-medicalized healthcare, non-institutional dependency. Each clinic will act as a hub, and will coordinate with other self-organized groups in its city/broader area. Each such coalition will determine and share with the network—the initiatives responding to the call—a list of needs (money, in kind, human), ways to be reached (online, mail, in person), long term communication framework/programming. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Needs may range from medicine and electronics to doctors. Within the coming weeks each clinic/coalition will send out their first round of communication.

Social Solidarity Health Clinic & Pharmacy – Iraklio, Crete

George Caffentzis is a philosopher of money. He is also co-founder of the Midnight Notes Collective and the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa. He has taught and lectured in colleges and universities throughout the world and his work has been translated into many languages. His books include: Clipped Coins, Abused Words and Civil Government: John Locke’s Philosophy of Money, Exciting the Industry of Mankind: George Berkeley’s Philosophy of Money; No Blood for Oil! and In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines and the Crisis of Capitalism. His co-edited books include: Midnight Oil: Work Energy War 1973-1992.

Silvia Federici is a feminist activist, writer, and a teacher. In 1972 she was one of the co-founders of the International Feminist Collective, the organization that launched the international campaign for Wages For Housework (WFH). In the 1990s, after a period of teaching and research in Nigeria, she was active in the anti-globalization movement and the U.S. anti-death penalty movement. She is one of the co-founders of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa, an organization dedicated to generating support for the struggles of students and teachers in Africa against the structural adjustment of African economies and educational systems. From 1987 to 2005 she taught international studies, women studies, and political philosophy courses at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. All through these years she has written books and essays on philosophy and feminist theory, women’s history, education and culture, and more recently the worldwide struggle against capitalist globalization and for a feminist reconstruction of the commons. Her books include: Caliban & The Witch & Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle.

 

Report From Greece, Part 1

From Thessaloniki to Iraklion
Summer 2015

by George Caffentzis

In the summer of 2015 I spent a month in Greece, from June 10 to July 10. I travelled from Thessaloniki to Volos to Athens to Sparta to the Mani to Crete then back to Athens. I stayed mostly with comrades, some new, some old and I was joined for ten days by Silvia Federici. What follows are some observations and comments on this tumultuous period that included the “OXI” (“NO!”) referendum, innumerable meetings of the “Troika[ed note: the triumvirate representing the European Union in its foreign relations] with and without the officials of Syriza, the coalition of leftist parties that took over the government in January 2015 after being a tiny party for decades [ed. note: or, the Greek Coalition of the Radical Left, name taken from the Greek adverb “from the roots”]. Though the sections are undated, they are roughly placed in a chronological order. This is not meant to be a comprehensive account of the situation in Greece, so there are many facets of the class struggle there that are not noted. But I should point out that the immigrant workers are part of the Greek working class.

Greece 2015: Setting the Stage

The following is what I can make of collective understanding of the crisis put together with the help of comrades from Greece and the U.S. (in my own words, of course):

3 July, 2015: Greek referendum 2015: demonstration for voting NO at Syntagma square, Athens Greece. Photo by Ggia (CC BY-SA 4.0).
3 July, 2015: Greek referendum 2015: demonstration for voting NO at Syntagma square, Athens Greece. Photo by Ggia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

There are two levels to the crisis. First is the visible financial balance sheet level. Here is the world of debt payments due, say X, and the largely tax-based income of the state, say Y, and X-Y is what is due and it is huge amount. The drama of money, part tragedy, part comedy, is played out, with the protagonists in the front of the stage (incarnated by the financial wizards of the troika, the “young” P.M. Tsipras and the now ex-finance minister Varoufakis) while in the background is a shadowy chorus of bond-holders and out-front vulture hedge-fund managers who intervene periodically with sibylline utterances full of threat and fury.

The second level is the unstated but persistently followed plan to use the first crisis of state finances (the debt crisis) to put the European proletariat into crisis by making the elimination of labor legislation favorable to workers, the cuts in pensions, increased unemployment and a dramatic decrease in wages as structural adjustment conditionalities for any new “bailout” loans. The Greek working class is simply the supposed “weak link” useful for carrying out the plan aimed at Europe as a whole.

This is why the “fictive capital” theorists are so unconvincing. If the structural adjustment program elements of the plan were missing, then there would be a “financial solution to a financial problem.” But the clear purpose of the financial crisis is to deal with the fall of profitability in the entire European region. Capitalist strategists believe that the levels of wages, alternative forms of work refusal (pensions and welfare benefits) and of reproductive “services” (health and education) are so high that they make it impossible for European-based capital to compete (especially with Asian and North American capital). The crisis managers’ aim is to normalize the cuts in these levels and to make such a working class existence (precarious wages and even a return to testing physiological limits) a feature of the standard of living in Europe for the foreseeable future. If this is not done, European capital will suffer what at first may look like euthanasia, but then will later precipitate into a violent dissolution. This is the crisis of European capital! So not only are the European proletarians in trouble, but so are the capitalists. There are many crises in the field, there is no THE crisis.

All Quiet on the Extra-Parliamentary Front

There is something remarkable happening in Greece with the victory of Syriza in the elections of January 2015. A left-wing party gets into state power, but it seemed to have definitely kept the rest of the Left (parliamentary and extra-parliamentary) from using this time to put forward their own programs and demands in the streets. This seems to confirm Raul Zibechi’s insight, coming from Latin America, that the only force that could now defeat the anti-capitalist social movements is a left-wing government in power (or on its way to power).

Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece and President of Parlamentary group of SY.RIZ.A.-E.K.M. Photo by FrangiscoDer (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece and President of Parlamentary group of SY.RIZ.A.-E.K.M. Photo by FrangiscoDer (CC BY-SA 3.0).

I sensed a definite loss of direction, of energy, of confidence in the last few years within the extra-parliamentary left. Between December 2008 and April 2012 there was a period of intense confrontation with the forces of the state run by right-wing parties proposing austerity as a way out of the crisis. Along with this was the direct confrontation with Golden Dawn, the Greek version of the German Nazi Party [ed note: this is not the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn, familiar to many pagans & occultists]. Both were very popular antagonists.

But the rise of Golden Dawn was halted by its members’ assassination of a popular leftist rap singer that brought out a tremendous response. The right-wing government at the time then recognized that the Golden Dawn was too dangerous to let it expand without some checks. Without the antagonistic presence of Golden Dawn, however, the raison d’etre of much alarm and sense of emergency was vanishing in the fall of 2014.

Syriza’s sudden rise to state power (with its pledge to end the austerity regime imposed by the “the troika” and its minions in Greece) was also disconcerting for the extra-parliamentary left, since Syriza’s success implied that there might be an electoral way out of the regime of poverty and tatters.

Together these two developments disarmed the critics of electoral solutions to the crisis. So now in the face of an unprecedented attack on living standards, we see very little response in the streets. Syriza is therefore receiving negative support from the extra-parliamentary left.

Moreover, on the extra-parliamentary front, there is much division and backbiting typical of a period of defeat. I cannot help but be skeptical of the appeal of the extra-parliamentary left’s political program when I compare the number of youths involved in the simple commodification and consumption of sociality, sexuality and general pleasure in the cafes and tavernas —as if they are thumbing their collective noses at the troika! What a display of the willfulness of enjoyment that inserts a new pole of attraction in the equation…a pure anarchism.

As I walk through downtown Thessaloniki in the soft evening air I wonder, am I on the deck of the Titanic or am I walking through Paradise?

A clear-headed Anarchist from Thessaloniki speaks:

  • The solidarity economy is not strong enough yet to take on the task of social reproduction.
  • The collapse of the Syriza government would lead to an extremely repressive right-wing replacement.
  • Doing cooperative labor is not easy. Multiplying our experience with a cooperative bookstore would definitely be a lesson.

ERT3 confronts Syriza

Silvia Federici and I were invited to a meeting of workers at the national radio and television (ERT3) station in Thessaloniki. It was shut down exactly two years ago by the troika-friendly Nea Democratia-PASOK government that was looking to do something dramatic to show the bondholders that it was serious in sticking to the structural adjustment agenda. The shut-down decision was made abruptly and disrespectfully, with accusations of laziness and corruption tossed around to justify it. But the workers refused to exit silently. They faced down the police with the help of a crowd that blocked the entrances to the station and they continued to work in their studios and offices with live news, opinion and entertainment programing. In the evening and early morning there were documentary programs and re-runs. So that the station provided a 24/7 presence via the internet with programing especially keyed to the interests of the Northern Greek and Balkan audience. They did all this without pay and with donations from their listeners.

When Syriza came to power in January 2015 its spokespeople promised to revive the public broadcasting system and rehire all the journalists, technicians and office personnel that were laid off in 2013. This was the day when everything would be regularized with the arrival of the newly appointed station manager from government headquarters in Athens. However, not all was well as far as the workers were concerned.

First, the ERT3 workers have been used to self-management after two years of making decisions on the basis of assemblies of workers. In fact, that is exactly what they did on the arrival of station manager. They invited him to their assembly to debate with him as to his instructions from Syriza headquarters in Athens.

Second, they had learned one of the first acts of the new station director would be to lay-off or not-hire anyone that had joined the effort to keep the station alive in the previous two years.

Third, they were not happy that the new station manager was a former official of PASOK. Why wasn’t someone more in line with the politics of Syriza sent to become station manager? Or, what is Syriza’s politics now in the first place?

At the workers’ assembly there was talk about going on strike to protest the threatened lay-offs. In response, at the very moment when the rest of the workers would be getting a pay-check for the first time in two years, there was much dramatic rhetoric on the theme of the importance of ERT3’s programming, in support of the argument that the station should not go on strike (since ERT3 is often the only news channel that covers the strikes of others)!

Talk in Volos

After a number of talks in Thessaloniki by George and/or Silvia, here are notes for a joint talk in the Architecture school in the University at Volos:

From Debt To Crisis To Enclosure of the Commons

What is happening in Greece is the implementation of a structural adjustment program (a technical term that became so hated around the planet that the World Bank and IMF stopped using the term to be replaced by the term “Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper”!) as it was applied to former colonized states that have taken their mandate from the anti-colonial movement seriously. They were posing a threat in claiming the New International Economic Order (NIEO). This was a serious challenge (of which the nationalization of the oil industry across the planet was an example). The NIEO was in effect claiming reparations for colonialism’s massive theft of land, mineral wealth and labor-power. This was getting too close to the old masters’ bone and had to stop! To do this a trap was prepared, a debt trap. The governments of the former colonial world were tempted to take out loans with variable interest rates which at the time were relatively low, to fulfill the very mandate of ending the poverty and degradation of the last century. The trap was sprung in 1979 (under the rubric of “stopping inflation.”). The interest on the loans rose to nearly 20% over night. The former colonized countries’ governments were trapped indeed facing a debt crisis!The IMF and WB acted quickly. They did not want to lose the opportunity the crisis provided by dealing with a financial problem by financial means (e.g., rolling over the debt for another year). On the contrary, they imposed structural adjustment conditionalities that were directly aimed at the elimination of the commons (since most of these SAPs had requirements involving the land ownership and the transformation of commons into private ownership and other goals that were meant to privatize what were considered common goods (from pensions to “royalties” on extracted wealth. So here we have a direct line from Debt to Crisis to the Enclosure of the Commons.

Like a Frenzied Dog on a Trapped Fox

A similar path can be traced in the application of this scenario to Europe, starting with Greece. This is a period of low interest rates and there is much lending, but it is also a period of low profits as well. Greece became part of the Eurozone under the assumption that the inevitable restriction in monetary policy required by the single currency would be compensated during a crisis (e.g., roll overs of the debt would be allowed). This was a mistaken assumption, since it was not assumed by the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF. So a trap was closed on European countries like Greece and a package of structural adjustment policies was unleashed like a frenzied dog on a trapped fox. These policies were directed at commons and commons-like institutions (from pension funds to revenues from the extraction of mineral wealth) in preparation for the TTIP (the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). These specifics are driving the clear investing in silver 2016 that we are expecting.

An Autonomy Crisis

The reactions from the working class of Europe was tumultuous, and a new version of “IMF riots” were chronicled throughout Europe from 2010 on. But there hasn’t been any break through. The working class of Europe is experiencing a crisis of its power to say “No!”…i.e., an autonomy crisis that the OXI vote of July 5 might signal an anti-capitalist resolution.

Family and Poverty Reduction

The most effective poverty reduction institution in Greece is still the family. Though the family capital is being depleted at a rapid rate, it has been the cushion for the hard landing many have individually experienced these last five years. I’ll always remember my cousin’s table for Sunday lunch, everyone, four generations, eating elbow to elbow, frustrated each in their own ways, but all with a full belly! In fact, there is a race between state capital with family capital to determine which will be depleted first. If families’ savings get exhausted first, there will be genuine food riots that hadn’t been seen since the 19th century. If state capital exhausts first, there would be an anarchist turn in the creation of social reproduction institutions (from health clinics to Community Supported Agriculture agreements).

Cash in the Mattress and the Increase in Burglaries

There is much suspicion of banks and other financial institutions in Greece. There haven’t been any serious runs on the banks YET, but there is a walk from them. This explains the dramatic increase in the hoarding of cash under the famous mattresses. This has led to an increase in the number of burglaries, since burglars read the financial news as well! There is even a burglar’s demand for machines that locate gold coins!

A Fashion Statement

There is a strong taste for the tattered jeans, shorts and t-shirts this summer in Greece. Is this a fashion commentary on the crisis? Is this a way of merging the inside with the out? While sitting in the central square of Sparta, I see a little two-year old dressed with torn jeans. This fashion statement is a reminder of a change in the frankness of expression, because when I was a child on the Sparta square, the parents and children were dressed to a “t,” even though the poverty of the 1950s was much deeper than today’s.

Plato’s Republic and Debt Refusal

Plato's Academy Archaeological Site in Akadimia Platonos subdivision of Athens, Greece. Photo by Tomisti (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Plato’s Academy Archaeological Site in Akadimia Platonos subdivision of Athens, Greece. Photo by Tomisti (CC BY-SA 3.0).

In the midst of the debt crisis in Greece, Joulia Strauss, a German artist, decided that it was time to bring artists, scholars, political activists to Greece to show their solidarity with the Greek people in crisis. She thought a free school would be the best way to express this solidarity and the best venue for the school would be the site of Plato’s Academy (a few stones remain of it, rescued by archeologists). A. contacted me, recommended Joulia’s project and so I joined. I thought a presentation of Plato’s views on debt payment refusal would be a suitable topic. Then on the 23 of June a small band (reaching twenty at its peak) made its way to the site of the Academy and I made my presentation. The following is the text I based my remarks on:

June 23, 2015 at Plato’s Academy

Everyone would surely agree that if a sane man lends weapons to a friend and then asks them back when he is out of his mind, the friend shouldn’t return them, and wouldn’t be acting justly if he did.
Plato, Republic 331c.

In the fall of 2011, just after the termination of Occupy Wall Street, I began speaking in support of those who had pledged to refuse to repay their student loan debt once a million others have also pledged to do so (under the rubric of Occupy Student Debt Campaign). In the course of giving a number of presentations concerning this campaign I received many queries and criticisms. The queries were most often practical, e.g., “what about co-signers, what will happen to them if I refuse to pay when I become the millionth and first student loan debt refuser?” The criticisms were also practical, ranging from “why not organize people to refuse all debt?” to “if you refuse to pay student loans debt, wouldn’t the Federal Government stop supporting the student loan program at all and hence you would harm future students?” I was prepared to deal with these practical questions and criticisms on their own terms, with empirical evidence and political argument.

But there was a more problematic criticism that was not so easily answered, since those who voiced it were not just in disagreement with the premise of the campaign–it was justified to refuse to pay a student loan debt– but they were morally offended by it. Their retorts to my arguments for the Campaign took on an almost metaphysical aura of sanctity when they spoke about the importance of paying debts from loans that were freely entered into, whatever the consequences. Their criticism quickly left the plane of facts and even values and entered into a world of meta-values with the primary one being: one cannot be morally serious unless one pays back one’s debts.

The political problem posed by this moral attitude to debt repayment is that it touched a raw nerve in many student loan debtors who have been ashamed by their inability to pay off their loans. This shame has led many to try to cover up and not talk to others (even family members) about their plight. According to my research concerning previous student loan debt abolition efforts, one of the key reasons they have not been successful has been their inability to overcome debtors’ characteristic shamed silence that is profoundly anti-political because it turns the collective problem of debt repayment into an individual issue to be dealt with one person at a time. Consequently, this moral criticism had to be dealt with directly and decisively if the anti-student debt effort was not to meet a similar fate, since this criticism not only makes it difficult to move the critics, but it has a problematic effect on many debtors who are already vulnerable to the mental blackmail implicit in the “debt moralists’” assertions.

In thinking through the conundrum posed by these debt moralists, I realized that, as a philosopher, I was equipped to deal with the philosophical arguments for or against student loan debt repayment. The more I explored the literature the more I realized that the defense of debt refusal has a long philosophical history. It was important to get this literature into the contemporary discourse on debt in response to the rigidity of debt moralism.

Sketch of George Caffentzis, discussing Plato on Debt at Plato's Academy. Drawing by Joulia Strauss.
Sketch of George Caffentzis, discussing Plato on Debt at Plato’s Academy. Drawing by Joulia Strauss.

If Plato’s Republic marks the beginning of political philosophy, then debt payment refusal appears at the beginning of the beginning of political philosophy. Plato, the aristocratic darling of conservative thinkers, actually defends debt payment refusal in the Republic. Plato’s concern with debt should not be surprising, since indebtedness leading to debt slavery was the source of civil wars and revolutions throughout ancient Greek history from 600BC on. Solon, the famous Athenian law-giver, aimed to stop the endless turmoil caused by the cycle of debt-enslavement-revolution-debt and the ever reigniting class war between the poor debtors and the creditor plutocrats that was leading Athens to catastrophe. He did so by legislating the end of debt slavery, a move that led to the democratization of the Athenian state, and increasingly the remuneration of citizens for their public work (especially for their participation in the administration of justice and legislation, which required attending general assemblies and being part of juries, like the jury of 800+ that decided Socrates’ trial).

Solon was a politician and even a sage, but he was not a philosopher. Plato was. What did he have to say about debt repayment refusal? Significantly, the discussion of debt at the very beginning of the Republic. The first person Socrates interrogates, posing the book’s germinating question “What is justice?” is Kephalos, a wealthy arms manufacturer — although an immigrant, a member of the Athenian 1% — and owner of the house where the dialogue staged in the Republic is supposed to take place. The name “Kephalos” itself is important, for in ancient Greek it meant “head,” and as such it is a cognate of the word for “capital.”

Kephalos’ answer to Socrates’ question, appropriately enough for a merchant, is: “Speak the truth and pay your debts!” But Socrates easily dismisses this definition, pointing out that if a person borrows some weapons from a friend, but in the interim the friend “goes berserk” and becomes (murderously and/or suicidally) insane, it would not be just for the debtor to return the weapons to the friend…in fact, repaying the debt in this circumstance would be positively unjust, since it would lead to either murder or suicide or both! Thus the conditions of just repayment of a debt do not necessitate an absolute commitment to repayment under any conditions. Universalizing the kernel of Socrates’ rejoiner to Kephalos’ definition, we come to the following maxim: one should refuse to repay a loan when the payment will lead to evil or unjust consequences that far outweigh what fairness would result from its payment.

Plato’s suspicion of Kephalos’ wisdom was the outcome of the Athenians’ long political experience with a class of merchants and landlords who, like Kephalos, insisted that their loans should be repaid even if this should result in debt-slavery and class-based civil war. This may explain why, in Socrates’ response, Plato referred to the loan of a weapon! For creditors in this case appear to be a maddened crowd, with debt repayment being a cause of murder and suicide, especially when ending with the enslavement of fellow citizens.

These issues did not die with the end of the ancient world. Indeed, today’s “debt moralists” offer a response to those who refuser student loan repayment similar to the one that Kephalos made to Socrates’ query. In turn, we too must respond to the categorical imperative of debt moralists in the same way that Socrates responded to Kephalos’ definition of justice, with an emphatic “it depends.”

First, it depends on whether student loans are unjust in and of themselves qua loans. On this count, the actual mechanisms of student loan debt speak decisively. For a start, student loan debts in the US cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, unlike almost all other loan debts can be. In addition a large percentage of these loans have been contracted under fraudulent conditions, as it was revealed in the course of frequent scandals, court cases and Congressional committees’ investigations. As Robert Meister pointed out in the case of the University of California, UC administrators pledge future student fees largely to be paid for by student loans and grants to support UC’s bond ratings, its capital projects and a variety of equity deals that turn public money to private gain. This territory has been thoroughly explored by previous student loan debt abolition movements and there is still a lot more to learn.

Second, it depends on whether the collective good is served by repayment. Here it is important to understand the function of student debt in the context of the changes that have taken place in university financing since the 1970s. The ever increasing student debt burden (now beyond one trillion dollars) has been the material condition that made the imposition of ever increasing tuition fees in both public and private non-profit universities possible and financed the expansion of for-profit universities. These developments have led to the corporatization and privatization of universities, on the one side, and plunged a whole generation into debt-bondage. There is no doubt, therefore, that restoring a tuition-free university system and avoiding a further polarization of society requires that we end the present student debt system.

Third, it depends on whether the education and knowledge student loans are intended to pay for ought be commodities in the first place. This is where Plato enters again. Plato held a life-long antipathy to “sophists.” This word had a sociological reference–those who sell their knowledge to students—as well an epistemological one—those who claim to be wise. The sophists believed that knowledge was a commodity that could be exchanged for money. This was their answer to the question that has been at the center of the debate concerning the development of “for-profit” universities and the intensification of corporate efforts to impose intellectual property legal regimes on academic labor. Plato would not approve. His was a notion of knowledge that was neither commodified nor commodifiable. In Plato’s Republic those who know are to live a perfectly communistic life, neither paying for their education nor getting paid for its use. For two thousand years this conception of an academic institution remained the dominant one, and even in these neoliberal times it still has value.

The very status of most universities (that are either public or private but non-profit) and the traditional temporal limitations placed on “intellectual property rights” (e.g., patents give monopoly rights for the sale of an invention for 20 year) indicate that, despite highly organized and well-financed efforts, the commodification of education and knowledge is still not perceived as legitimate. If most universities are not supposed to profit from the education they provide and the knowledge they disseminate, why should ancillary financial institutions profit from them instead?

Student debt refusal, then, is in principle as just as one’s refusal to return a borrowed loaded gun to a maddened friend who intends to murder and then commit suicide with it. It should not be deterred by objections like the following, “Wouldn’t canceling all student loan debt be unfair to all those people who struggled to pay back their student loans?” For as David Graeber retorted in his important book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, this argument is as foolish as saying that it is unfair to a mugging victim that his/her neighbors were not mugged as well! (p. 389) Plato would agree.

Look for Part 2 of Report From Greece by George Caffentzis — with Silvia Federici — here.

George Caffentzis is a philosopher of money. He is also co-founder of the Midnight Notes Collective and the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa. He has taught and lectured in colleges and universities throughout the world and his work has been translated into many languages. His books include: Clipped Coins, Abused Words and Civil Government: John Locke’s Philosophy of Money, Exciting the Industry of Mankind: George Berkeley’s Philosophy of Money; No Blood for Oil! and In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines and the Crisis of Capitalism. His co-edited books include: Midnight Oil: Work Energy War 1973-1992.

Blowing the Ram’s Horn

A Review of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years

by George Caffentzis

Book Cover (Fair Use–Review).
Book Cover (Fair Use–Review).

Few issues are attracting so much attention in our time, and not just in social movement circles, as the question of debt. Student debt, mortgage debt, household/personal debt, governmental debt: it is hard today to find anyone in North America or worldwide not affected by the hook indebtedness plants into our flesh. Thus David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is more than timely, and this is certainly part of the reason for the response it has generated. It is also a genial book, generous with bold hypotheses, interesting facts, telling anecdotes, and insightful jokes. From the opening pages, I felt I had come on a Gargantuan carnival of thought. Graeber’s many syncopated voices speak from its pages. As I enjoy his poly-vocal discourse, I found Debt to be a fruitful and exciting read.

Jubilee & Debt Forgiveness

Debt is a political book clearly intended to provide arguments in favor of a “Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt” (390). As Graeber writes: ”Nothing would be more important than to wipe the slate clean for everyone, mark a break with our accustomed morality, and start again” (391) than to impose a Jubilee, presumably in the style of the Ancient Hebrews who mandated the cancellation of debts and the freeing of those held in debt bondage every seven years. Debt echoes a popular sentiment, amplified after the great bailout of 2008, “If the government could buy up these banks’, corporations’ and firms’ bad debt, why can’t it cancel my infinitely smaller one?” But as the Jubilee 2000 movement of the 1990s discovered, there are serious obstacles in the way of such a move — including a foundational moral principle — that the book addresses.

The first and most important obstacle is the mass sense that paying back what one owes is the right thing to do and any refusal to accept debt obligations amounts to an egregious violation of ethical standards. The second obstacle is the futility of debt payment refusal felt by even those people who have managed to reject the morality of repayment given the many instruments of terror banks (with government collaboration) unleash on a debt refuser. Graeber is well aware a Jubilee may be proscribed as immoral or impossible. I read the first half of Debt (Chapters 1-7) as confronting one horn of this dilemma (the assumed immorality of defaulting on one’s debts). I read the last half of the book (Chapters 8-12) as confronting the other horn of the dilemma (the assumed political impossibility of refusing to pay one’s debts). In sum, the overall political aim of Debt is to show that a Jubilee is both moral and possible.

The Morality of Debt

Graeber’s first aim in this process is to challenge “the moral sanctity of the debt,” a sentiment expressed by creditors throughout the ages. He does so by showing that debt repayment has been made sacred because morality itself in our society has been modeled on the debt relation and is its mirror image. Drawing on a large body of linguistic, anthropological and historical evidence, Graeber explores how the nexus of debt, guilt and sin has ruled the commercial world, from China to the Roman Empire, codified in religious texts and legal doctrines dating back thousands of years.

As Graeber tells the story behind the identification of morality with paying back one’s debts, Debt allows for other moral principles to come to the fore. Graeber gives us two options here. One is based on communal expectations of mutual aid, on “base-line communism” as he calls it, where the adage “to each according to their need, from each according to their ability” is dominant. The other is based on the principle of hierarchy that presumes one party in a relation is superior to the other and consequently no “fair” exchange is possible between them.

Why has morality been identified for eons with debt and the rest of the concepts in its immediate semantic territory (credit, default, interest, etc.)? Graeber’s answer is that when the monetary world of buying and selling (especially of human beings in slave markets) gripped a society, older forms of hierarchy and of mutual aid (or communism with a lower-case “c”) imploded. The resulting chaos led to a morphing of morality into debt repayment categories that has never been reversed. Older forms of communism and hierarchy persisted and newer ones developed even after the rise of “pure” monetary exchange but, to this day, they have been indelibly marked by the centrality of the money-debt nexus.

Graeber contests the reduction of morality to debt repayment, noting we need not “insist on defining all human interactions as matters of people giving one thing for another,” for in this case “any ongoing human relations can only take the form of debts” (126). He shows us that there have been other social arrangements relying on radically different principles — heroic societies, human economies, baseline communism — that we can use to forge models of moral behavior sans exchange. Once we are alive to these possibilities, the hegemonic conceptual power of the “exchange model” vanishes and we can acknowledge that repayment of debt leading to harmful consequences can be legitimately and morally opposed, especially if it creates slave-like conditions on a mass scale and social polarization (as denounced most recently by the Occupy Wall Street movement). Graeber’s Debt, then, is like the blowing of the ram’s horn announcing the ancient Hebrew Jubilee — it lays the logical foundations for our liberation from a self-destructive prejudice attributing moral sanctity to “honoring one’s debts.”

The Fluidity Of Money

Having proven that a Jubilee is moral, since morality can and should be based on a non-exchange principle, Graeber proceeds to demonstrate its feasibility. Crucial here is his claim to have discerned a social/historic law operating for the last five thousand years: a long cycle of monetary oscillations between periods of virtual credit money and periods of coinage and metal bullion.

He notes that at the end of each oscillation the dominant economic systems become more vulnerable. In the course of these transitional periods, especially those from coinage/bullion to virtual credit money, empires crumbled and prohibitions against debt-enslavement intensified. The last transition from coinage and bullion to virtual credit money, for example, occurring in 600 CE, resulted in “a widespread movement to control, or even forbid predatory lending” (251) with both Christianity and Islam moving to forbid usury at that time.

This long wave cyclic theory of money forms has relevance for the prospects of a Jubilee according to Graeber who draws an analogy between the transition from coinage/bullion to credit money that occurred in the early Middle Ages and the change initiated by President Nixon’s 1971 decision to end the direct convertibility of the US dollar into gold, which returned the world economy to virtual credit money. If it is true that collapsing empires are less capable of resisting the demand for liberation from debt, we might be in a better position (runs the argument), in our emerging credit money world, to break from the capitalist imperative to “never [allow] anyone to question the sacred principle that we must all pay our debts” (391). Hence, Graeber argues that the tide of monetary history makes a Jubilee possible.

Debt stimulates our sense of possibility by breaking with neo-liberal concepts and sentiments that have dominated the discourse of debt and money in the financial crisis. It also presents fresh arguments in support of a debt Jubilee. However, the book stops short of examining what a Jubilee in our time could look like. Graeber’s case (along with the arguments of others) convince me that Jubilees are both moral and possible, but he does not clarify why they should top our political agenda, nor does he distinguish between reformist and revolutionary Jubilees. The main purpose of the ancient Mesopotamian and Hebrew Jubilees, after all, was to preserve hierarchical social systems by means of periodic reforms that literally dispersed the pressure put on ruling classes by mass opposition to debt repayment. Debts were cancelled in these Jubilees, so that the oppressive machine could keep grinding on.

There can be, however, Jubilees that have a revolutionary impact and mark the beginning of new forms of social organization. What might this new social organization be in our time? Debt does not say, but let me propose that Graeber might follow it up by considering the concept of the commons. Indeed, for his next project I suggest he direct his prodigious energies to writing on the commons with a lower-case as well as a capital “C.“

In conclusion, let me once again commend David Graeber for the labor he put into producing this very useful book at the moment when the anti-capitalist movement is organizing around and against the politics of debt. In the spirit of Debt’s argument, building a movement capable of imposing a Global Jubilee would be the best way to repay him for his labor.

George Caffentzis is a philosopher of money. He is also co-founder of the Midnight Notes Collective and the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa. He has taught and lectured in colleges and universities throughout the world and his work has been translated into many languages. His books include: Clipped Coins, Abused Words and Civil Government: John Locke’s Philosophy of Money, Exciting the Industry of Mankind: George Berkeley’s Philosophy of Money; No Blood for Oil! and In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines and the Crisis of Capitalism. His co-edited books include: Midnight Oil: Work Energy War 1973-1992; Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local and Global Struggles in the Fourth World War; A Thousand Flowers: Social Struggles Against Structural Adjustment in African Universities.


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Debt, Stories, & The Violence Of Silence

by James Lindenschmidt

Lately, I’ve been reading Debt: The First 5000 Years by anthropologist David Graeber. I recommend the book wholeheartedly for anyone who wishes to understand the theory, history, psychology, and ethics of debt. This is not a review of the book, but look for a review by George Caffentzis coming soon to Gods & Radicals. Graeber’s book has been food for thought to say the least, and has me thinking about the function of debt under capitalism. It pervades the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, about not only our individual places in society but also the structure of society itself. One of the main themes of Graeber’s book is that debt functions as the primary arbiter of morality in society; many contemporary religions speak in terms of debt help & advice as well as repayment in their cosmologies, often in terms of the afterlife. Debt can also function as “fate,” in the sense that with debt, one can accumulate restrictions that limit the potentialities of one’s existence, further chaining us inside the capitalist workforce. As Graeber shows us, these stories about debt are worth further attention.

The Tiv Flesh-Debt & The Society of Witches

Graeber reminds us repeatedly that these questions of debt and economy are, above all, human stories, and as such are well served by his anthropological approach. One of the human stories he tells is of the Tiv flesh-debt and the society of witches, a story worth quoting at some length:

“The mbatsav, or society of witches, was always looking for new members, and the way to accomplish this was to trick people into eating human flesh. A witch would take a piece of the body of one of his own close relatives, who he had murdered, and place it in the victim’s food. If the man was foolish enough to eat it, he would contract a “flesh-debt,” and the society of witches ensured that flesh-debts are always paid.

Perhaps your friend, or some older man, has noticed that you have a large number of children, or brothers and sisters, and so tricks you into contracting the debt with him. He invites you to eat food in his house alone with him, and when you begin the meal he sets before you two dishes of sauce, one of which contains cooked human flesh….

If you eat from the wrong dish, but you do not have a “strong heart”—the potential to become a witch—you will become sick and flee from the house in terror. But if you have that hidden potential, the flesh will begin to work in you. That evening, you will find your house surrounded by screetching cats and owls. Strange noises will fill the air. Your new creditor will appear before you, backed by his confederates in evil. He will tell of how he killed his own brother so you two could dine together, and pretend to be tortured by the thought of having lost his own kin as you sit there, surrounded by your plump and healthy relatives. The other witches will concur, acting as if all this is your own fault. “You have sought for trouble, and trouble has come upon you. Come and lie down on the ground, that we may cut your throat.”

There’s only one way out, and that’s to pledge a member of your own family as substitute. This is possible, because you will find you have terrible new powers, but they must be used as the other witches demand. One by one, you must kill off your brothers, sisters, children; their bodies will be stolen from their graves by the college of witches, brought back to life just long enough to be properly fattened, tortured, killed again, then carved and roasted for yet another feast.

The flesh debt goes on and on. The creditor keeps on coming.”
–David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, emphasis added

Interesting, but more than a little morbid, right? This story of debt & cannibalism is useful precisely because it horrifies our western minds, and yet it reveals the arbitrary construct of the psychology of debt as it operates in our consciousnesses. A few points about the above passage:

Trickery & entrapment as foundational recruitment practice. The “society of witches” are “always looking for new members, and the way to accomplish this was to trick people.” This is a political organization, in the sense that they have a certain amount of power in the Tiv culture. This political organization reproduces itself through trickery, bonding its new members after the trick to use their “terrible new powers” in service to the group.

An ability to ignore one’s conscience and act in ways that are normally repugnant. New members of the society of witches must have “a strong heart,” which means that they are able to overcome their distaste and disgust for the group’s cannibalistic activities which are repugnant to the core. It is interesting that an ability to shut off one’s conscience is seen as “strength.”

Blame-shifting & corroboration of a lie benefiting the conspirators. The deceptive recruiter then confronts the new recruit: he “pretends to be tortured” which shifts the blame for murdering, cooking, and eating another human away from the very person responsible for the deed. Instead, everyone already invested in the society of witches pretends that there is nothing at all unusual about the arrangement, and that the flesh-debt is the fault and responsibility of the person tricked into cannibalism. They not only tell the story & believe it, but also behave as if the story is true. The society of witches, after all, ensures that “flesh debts are always paid.” As always, the repayment of debt is always seen as sacrosanct and legitimate, no matter how abhorrent the story of any specific debt might be.

Debt is now a tool of capitalism

All Our Grievances Are Connected. Image from strikedebt.org
All Our Grievances Are Connected. Image from strikedebt.org.

These structures of the debt relationship repeat themselves through many of Graeber’s examples of how debt works. I invite the reader to take a look at how the above structures of debt relationship manifest in our culture, indeed in many of our lives, since the amount of debt people carry these days is greater than ever. Indeed, as Jacques Laroche pointed out at strikedebt.org, debt might be the single unifying factor in all the various struggles going on against capitalism.

Debt is arbitrary, and not always tied to the value of specific things that have been purchased. As an example, one needs only look at the story of student debt and the “deal” between the capitalists and the working class of my generation, growing up in the 80s. This deal was reinforced in our young minds, and continues to be reinforced in schools across the nation. The story is something like this: “hire education” is mandatory for those who wish to work at well-paying jobs. Those who don’t achieve this hire education are fated to mop floors or flip fast food burgers — a story accepted as axiomatic by millions despite the fact many successful capitalists are not college educated. Furthermore, even more so than debt in general, student debt is completely arbitrary. My wife and I have the exact same degree from the exact same educational institution. One of us managed to get this degree without incurring any debt, whereas the other one accrued tens of thousands of dollars in debt, again, for the same degree from the same institution. I will leave it to you students of kyriarchy to determine which of us was saddled with the debt (hint: it wasn’t the straight white male).

Debt is not the same thing as capitalism, having been around at least 10x longer than capitalism has. Debt is now a prime mechanism by which the working class is kept under control, giving millions of people no other choice but to sell the only thing they have left to sell: their labor power in order to survive. Debt underlies all aspects of class struggle. Since the destruction of the Commons, there is no other possibility for most people to subsist and reproduce their lives.

Robert Anton Wilson had a great thought-experiment, where instead of using the term “money” (which also is not the same as debt, by the way, despite their close relationship) he suggests using the term “survival tickets.” This thought-experiment shows that money and debt introduce an abstraction into the most basic survival impulses in the most primitive parts of our consciousness. We humans evolved with “fight or flight” instincts to protect us from imminent danger, such as being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. Now, few of us are in danger of being consumed by a wild animal, yet these instincts remain with us. The “survival ticket” concept illustrates this fear beautifully, as these completely arbitrary and abstract tickets are the way we survive, and the fear of their lack drives many of our actions.

Most of us, of course, don’t really have enough money, at least not to live the way we wish to live. Most of us will use our limited “survival tickets” to buy food and shelter, meeting our most basic needs for survival, while in the meantime the spectre of unpaid debt keeps growing in the back of our minds, gnawing at us, creating fear that eventually men with guns will come and take away our limited survival tickets and our home. This fear keeps us willing to engage the capitalist system, so that we can struggle for more survival tickets, showing how powerful this story of debt is in our culture.

The importance of stories & violence of silence

“When you begin to believe in your own B.S., you enter the state that I call self-hypnotic ideational trance, and pretty soon you’ve got a headful of S.H.I.T.”
Robert Anton Wilson

Wilson also had some other fabulous ideas about the ideas we hold in our minds. He warned us to be mindful of our B.S. (belief systems), and to make sure we don’t operate with destructive S.H.I.T. (self-hypnotic ideational trances) that we aren’t deliberately cultivating for ourselves. I would call this process decolonizing the mind. Graeber’s book can certainly help us see through some of the constructs lurking below our everyday awareness, that help push capitalism forward and reproduce itself. This leveling process of capitalism requires us to lose sight of stories, whether it be the debt-stricken person being thrown into the street, or the ecosystem being raped and its inhabitants destroyed, because capitalism cannot operate under the nuances of existence:

“To make a human being an object of exchange, one woman equivalent to another for example, requires first of all ripping her from her context; that is, tearing her away from that web of relations that makes her the unique conflux of relations that she is, and thus, into a generic value capable of being added and subtracted and used as a means to measure debt. This requires a certain violence.”
—David Graeber, from Debt: The First 5000 Years

We must refuse to be silent. We must insist on stories, both in telling our own and hearing those of others. Don’t believe the same old B.S. that capitalism sells, and get that S.H.I.T. out of your head. We are Pagans, and we are (or should be!) sensitive to the stories that lurk, undiscovered, in the corners of consciousness and the forest. It is these stories that will transform & re-enchant the world.


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Death and Taxes: Real and Artificial Scarcities from an Eco-Psychological Perspective


“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” — Henry David Thoreau

Revolutionary road-2
“From the time I woke up until I went to bed, there was the fear.” (image credit: publicity still from the 2008 film, “Revolutionary Road”)

From the time I woke up until I went to bed, there was the fear. Sometimes I could give voice to this fear, but mostly it remained unspoken. It threaded through all of my conversation, all of my activities, all of my thoughts. The fear was with me even in my dreams.

It was the fear that there is not enough.

This fear appeared sometime in my childhood, and it has stayed with me as I moved into adulthood. It stayed with me as I graduated from college and law school and got a job. It has stayed with me even as my annual income has doubled and tripled. No matter how much I had, there was always the fear. The fear of going hungry. The fear of not being able to pay bills. The fear of not being able to pay for a doctor. The fear of not being able to pay for my kids’ college. The fear of not being able to support myself in retirement.

I would find myself, in my distracted moments, whispering, “If only I had …” or “All I need is …”.

Does this sound familiar? This fear that there is not enough, that there will never be enough?

This fear even played out in my romantic relationships, which had a desperate, grasping quality to them, my need for someone to “complete” me. It even manifested in my relationship with my God, whose love always seemed conditional, something which could be hoarded by the “righteous” and withheld from “sinners”.

The strange thing was that this fear did not lessen as my life circumstances changes, as the objective measures of my economic security increased. Nor was it lessened by the knowledge that I and those like me enjoy a level of material security unknown in other parts of the world, and undreamt of in the history of the humankind. The fear might seem to go away for a little while when I went shopping, when I bought something I didn’t need. But it always returned.

Why?

Because this fear is not based on anything real — it is manufactured.


“You can’t take it with you” — Alan Parsons Project

supermarket-empty
“This perpetual fear of not having enough is manufactured. It is manufactured by our economic system and those who benefit from it.”

This perpetual fear of not having enough is manufactured. It is manufactured by our economic system and those who benefit from it. An artificial scarcity is created by systemic maldistribution. This artificial scarcity creates the fear. It is fed by advertising. It is perpetuated by our public discourse, the things we say to each other, the hidden assumptions behind statements like: “Raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment.” and “Easy access to health care will create consumers with an insatiable demand for medical services.”

This fear is perpetuated by the cycle of boom and bust, economic “bubbles” followed by economic downturns, which encourages both hoarding and conspicuous consumption. It is encouraged by the government in the name of “patriotism”. The fear encourages compulsive shopping, compulsive eating, compulsive sex — all of which feeds back into the system.

There are real scarcities, of course. Real insecurities. But they are hidden, masked by the artificial scarcities and manufactured insecurities. Artificial scarcities obscure the real scarcities, the absolute scarcities. We live on a planet with finite resources and we are growing without restraint, because of an economic system premised on infinite growth, and because of a belief that unlimited offspring are inalienable right. Clean air, clear water, fertile land, trees, fossil fuels — these are real scarcities, but we consume them like they are inexhaustible. We consume resources that are truly scarce in order to stave off the fear of artificial scarcities: money, jobs, consumer goods. I can’t grow enough food to sustain my family, I can’t make my own clothes, and I can’t build a house: these are real insecurities. But they are not the insecurities that are driving me on a day-to-day basis.

So long as we’re caught up in the system, we can’t tell the difference between the real scarcities and the artificial ones. Not only do we mistake artificial scarcities for real ones, we also mistake real scarcities for artificial ones. And so, believing that the real scarcity of earth’s resources is artificial — i.e., the product of artifice — we put our faith in another kind of artifice, a technological fix that we hope will save us from rising temperatures and rising sea levels. And believing that the earth itself is the artifice of God, we put our faith in a divine savior who will rescue us and carry us away to a similarly artificial paradise. All of which leads to more overconsumption — “make hay while you can” — and more hoarding — storing up against the inevitable “end times”.


“And death shall have no dominion.” — Dylan Thomas

death_and_the_maiden_1
“At the root of these is the fear of death — the fear that there is not enough life, the fear that there is a limited about of ‘me’.” (image credit: “death and the maiden 1” by paperskull )

We need to root out the source of the fear that drives this cycle. Yes, artificial scarcity is created by maldistribution, but the fear of scarcity has a deeper root. Yes, advertising and our collective myths perpetuate this fear, but they just take advantage of something much more primal. Not enough money, not enough possessions, not enough love: At the root of these is the fear of death — the fear that there is not enough life, the fear that there is a limited about of “me”. All fear of scarcity derives from this fear of death.

“To Have or to Be” is how Erich Fromm framed our ontological dilemma. Because we cannot be infinite, we seek to consume infinitely. We hoard wealth as a hedge against death and squander resources as a way of denying our finitude. We strive for dominion over mother nature, not just to end suffering, but hoping thereby to attain dominion over death. But ironically this fear of death drives us to destroy the very material conditions of our lives, to murder the earth of which we are part. Or if we cannot maintain the illusion of control, then we take refuge in a state of dissociation from matter, from our bodies, from the natural world, surrounding ourselves with artificial world of non-biodegradable plastics and the never-ending stream of stimulation from our electronic screens. Here we can be immortal — for a little while at least.


“Our only but wholly adequate significance is as parts of the unimaginable whole.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

l-1crop
“I had an intense feeling of both our infinitesimal insignificance and our inestimable consequence as a species.” (image credit: still from the 2014 movie, “Lucy”)

It should have happened on a mountaintop. Or in a redwood forest. Instead, it happened to me in a movie theater, of all places. It wasn’t even a particularly good movie. I guess we don’t get to choose the time and place of our epiphanies. Of course, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. If I had not been immersing myself in eco-Pagan discourse and practice, I might not have been primed for the experience.

The climax of the movie in question was a montage of images connecting the heroine to her ancestral primate past and to the physical universe as whole. It triggered something in me, and as I walked out of the theater, I had an intense feeling of both our infinitesimal insignificance and our inestimable consequence as a species. I felt both of radical dissociation from the everyday concerns of my life and of deep responsibility to the earth and to universe as a whole.

I didn’t realize it right away, but in the coming days and months, it dawned on me that the ever-present anxiety about my own death was not so ever-present. I’m not saying I was suddenly careless when crossing the street, or that I was unconcerned about what would happen to my kids if I died at a relatively young age. But the end of my life just did not seem to matter that much in the cosmic scheme of things. Yesterday I turned 40, which for many people is an anxiety-ridden transition, but as the day approached, I felt only an increasing lightness of being. It might be an overstatement to say I no longer fear death, but I no longer experience each moment like a stopwatch running backward. And my personal death no longer looms over me like Nemesis with her sword. Instead, I feel that one day I might actually be able embrace it, like an old lover.

I also noticed that the perpetual fear of not having enough was strangely absent. And I started to see how this sense of scarcity which had been my constant companion was an artificial creation of a sick system which actually obscures the real scarcities. Everything seemed different in this new light. I still went to work and paid my bills, but I did this with a new sense of detachment. The anxiety which had previously underlain all of my activities, all of my thoughts, had largely evaporated. There are still days when I lapse back into my old patterns of thought: “If only I had …”. But I can still call back the vision, the sense of being a part of something so vast that my fears are dwarfed by it. And then that fear of not having enough loosens its hold on me.


“For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself?” — The Gospel of Luke

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“We realize that we are a small, but radically interconnected, part of this vast earth — which is itself a part of an even vaster cosmos — a part of the earth that has recently become conscious of itself.”

This shift in consciousness which I experienced is what ecologist Arne Naess calls “Self Realization”, an experience of the shifting of the center of one’s identity from the ego-self to the “eco-self”. We realize that we are not who we thought we were. We are not our minds. Even our bodies are not our own, but are colonized by other living organisms, just as we colonize Gaia. Our skin, the boundary by which we measure where “I” end and “it” begins, is not solid after all, but is permeable, the thinnest of veils. As ecologist David Abram explains, we realize “that we are a part of something so much vaster and more inscrutable than ourselves […] that our own life is entirely continuous with the life of the rivers and forests, that our intelligence is entangled with the wild intelligence of wolves and wetlands, that our breathing bodies are simply a part of the exuberant flesh of the Earth”.

We realize that we are a small, but radically interconnected, part of this vast earth — which is itself a part of an even vaster cosmos — a part of the earth that has recently become conscious of itself, and as such has special responsibilities. Paul Shepard describes this change in this way:

“If nature is not a prison and earth a shoddy way-station, we must find the faith and force to affirm its metabolism as our own—or rather, our own as part of it. To do so means nothing less than a shift in our whole frame of reference and our attitude toward life itself, a wider perception of the landscape as a creative, harmonious being where relationships of things are as real as the things. Without losing our sense of a great human destiny and without intellectual surrender, we must affirm that the world is a being, a part of our own body.”

With this shift in the locus of our identity comes a new perspective on our individual lives and our place in the cosmos. Somewhere along the way, we lose that fear that was our constant companion — the fear of never having enough, and the fear of death. Writing at the end of the 19th century, socialist and nature mystic, Edward Carpenter, described a “cosmic consciousness” in archaic humankind, a sensibility which he hoped to see return in modern times:

“To the early man the notion of his having a separate individuality could only with difficulty occur; hence he troubled himself not with the suicidal questionings concerning the whence and whither which now vex the modern mind. For what causes these questions to be asked is simply the wretched feeling of isolation, actual or prospective, which man necessarily has when he contemplates himself as a separate atom in this immense universe—the gulf which lies below seemingly ready to swallow him, and the anxiety to find some mode of escape. But when he feels once more that he, that he himself, is absolutely indivisibly and indestructibly a part of this great whole—why then there is no gulf into which he can possibly fall.”

With this cosmic consciousness, comes a new perspective on everything. We can see artificial scarcities for what they are and can distinguish them from real scarcities. And we come to see that what matters most is not economic security or personal immortality, but the survival of the human race and of all of life. And so, in loosing ourselves, we gain the whole world.


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