A Totally Different Way to Think About Economics — with Visionary Charles Eisenstein
What would the world look like if money embodied our values, if the best business decision was the best decision for society, and if wealth was defined by how much we give, not how much we have?
This summer, I decided to escape [my hometown of] London for a week .... for a different kind of short vacation. At Schumacher College in south Devon, the author and teacher Charles Eisenstein was travelling to the UK from the United States to run a course on ‘ecology, scarcity and the gift economy', before embarking on a tour around Europe. I'd only heard about Charles and his work when the Occupy Wall Street protests took off in late 2011, and I was captivated by his unique take on all that is wrong with our world as well as his fresh and engaging speaking style, as captured in a short film by Ian Mackenzie. After coming across his latest book, Sacred Economics, I jumped at the opportunity to spend some time in his company and learn more about his views on how "to make money and human economy as sacred as everything else in the universe".
The basic proposition of Charles' work was introduced to the course participants during a Sunday evening lecture on the first day of arrival. Charles suggested that everyone carries a secret knowledge in their hearts that tells them the society we live in is meant to be more beautiful than this, and yet we're constantly pulled back to a way of being that is somehow alien to us. Whatever world problem or crisis we look at, from fracking and atmospheric pollution to the destruction of the rainforests or the breakdown of community, someone somewhere is making money from it. It seems as if money has become opposite to our ideals, said Charles, and is often turned into a force for evil. So what would money look like if it embodied our values, if the best business decision was the best decision for society, and if wealth was defined by how much we give, not how much we have?
During the next morning of the course, we began to explore these broad ideas through a number of experiential exercises. This began with an exploration of ‘the gift' and what that means for us personally in our day-to-day lives and our work. As Charles began the session by explaining, this hearkens back to indigenous cultures in which an understanding of the gift was fundamental to how societies functioned - a concept that is widely explored in the fascinating book The Gift by Lewis Hyde (one of four books recommended for participants to read before the course began).* Today, we generally no longer see society as premised on the gift, but have rather constructed complex market economies that hinder us from expressing our gifts on a social, economic or individual basis - the implications of which is profoundly contemplated in Charles' writings. The need to re-learn the gift is central to the changes that are now needed to heal our broken world, as his latest book explains in compelling detail; from an analysis of how modern civilisation has tragically lost our understanding of the gift, to the collective actions necessary to create a gift-based economy and realise "the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible".
Learning to give of our gifts
But it was on the more personal level, in terms of our individual gifts and the changes we need to undergo in order to ‘live in the gift', that we mainly explored throughout the course. For example, the first exercise involved describing our gifts to an exercise partner in order to understand, as Charles said, how we are all here "to fulfil the unique role we have within the social ecosystem". Every person has a gift to bear which is necessary for the whole to function, like an ecology of sorts, we were told. Such knowledge can be very strong in teenagers - that we are here for a reason, even though our schooling system mostly prepares us to make a living, to take and to compete, all based on standardisation and conformity instead of preparing us to give of our gifts. The aim of this first exercise was to listen and create a space for each other to realise what our gifts are, and how we may be in a transition in life in which new gifts are coming to us.
In further exercises we then explored what is blocking us from expressing our gifts, trying to describe to each other the more beautiful world we inwardly feel is possible, before giving attention to ‘what hurts' when we allow ourselves to enter into this vision of a more meaningful and hopeful future. We even spent some moments going around our circle and trying to ‘see without categories', watching the trees outside swaying in the wind and rain, and then misnaming objects around the room in order to jumble up our sense of conditioned reality.
It wasn't quite what I expected from a course with a renowned public intellectual, someone who is currently in high demand in America and Europe for his ideas on negative-interest currency, degrowth economics and the quantum theory of money. Yet it was soon clear that every exercise that Charles introduced to us was carefully premeditated, someway relevant on a personal level to the great transition our world is going through, and potentially transformational - even if it did seem a bit New Agey at first. In fact, Charles explained that many contemporary New Age ideas are at variance with his own conceptualisations, particularly the notion that money is merely energy and therefore ‘neutral', or the prevalent New Age view of ‘abundance' that sanctions the acquisition of unlimited personal wealth. Similarly, the New Age idea of ‘making up your own reality' usually ends up not working at all, he finds, as often the negativities you are trying to suppress are the key to change. Hence his emphasis on giving attention to that which needs healing, and on working with the suppressed, shadow material of both ourselves and of society.
This is part of the reason why his work appeals to so many people, Charles told us; because he doesn't ignore the many crises and problems we face. However, Charles also confided that he is still sometimes accused of being naïve. People often say the power elite will never change, he said, and his vision of a more beautiful world - as well as his idealistic policy roadmap of transformational changes to our political and economic systems - doesn't account for all the tricks they have up their sleeves. But even this accusation can be seen as a call to ‘please pay attention to that too', he said. So, for example, when we did the ‘what hurts' exercise in order to bring our attention to all the fears and doubts that surround our vision of a better world, the idea was to simply give our attention to that which hurts about our tender vision, rather than trying to escape our discomfiture through intellectual analysis or cynicism. This is all that is necessary for healing to happen, said Charles; to bring the blockage or pain to our attention - including the pain of our ailing planet.
Connecting with my inner guru
Nevertheless, it was a surprise to find myself in deep communion with a nettle bush by the end of the course, receiving the gift of its guidance to my current life dilemmas. This was during the ‘gift of attention' exercise in which we wandered around the college grounds, mulling over our most pressing problems, until being drawn to something in nature - a bug, a leaf, or a spiders web perhaps - that we then stared at for a long time, awaiting an answer to our quandary. Even more surprisingly, I soon found myself quite enjoying these exercises and the opportunity they gave to explore my untapped inner potential and reconnect with nature. The co-facilitator Toni Spencer, an artist and educator still fresh from her time spent with Occupy London, gave us a compelling insight into the art of foraging on the third day of the course. We were also taken by minibus to the coast near Dartmouth, and I found myself being led with eyes shut across the fields with my exercise partner and undergoing a bizarrely mind-expanding experience amidst the fauna and sheep. Furthermore, it was unexpectedly satisfying to summon all the negativity from my ‘habits of scarcity' and ‘separation', and then release it into the ground by patting the mud, as we did in one of the final exercises.
The course may not have fulfilled my expectations of sitting on a desk and scribbling notes about the new economy for a week, but it felt like a privilege to be in the company of someone with such a comprehensive understanding of both "self and cosmos", as his previous book The Ascent of Humanity depicts, as well as an adept story-telling ability that helped to bring these arcane ideas back down to earth. It was also an unanticipated pleasure to spend some time in the remote atmosphere of Schumacher College. At the beginning, it seemed rather stringent that all participants were obliged to help cook the food, hoover the halls and clean the toilets. But it's impossible to object as soon as you realise what a special place is the Old Postern in Dartington - which is really closer to being a commune of open-minded progressives, activists and scholars than merely an institution for getting a degree certificate in ecological studies. Even the resident ecologist and professor, Stephen Harding (whose brief lecture on Gaia theory and planetary boundaries was exceptionally funny and engaging), was scheduled on the rota to help bake the morning cookies and prep the lunch. The fireside chat on a Wednesday evening with Satish Kumar was sheer enchantment - there can be few people in this world who embody such homespun wisdom and humility (and are then willing to chat freely in the college bar afterwards, even partaking in a round of tequila courtesy of my new friend Hector from Mexico).
Overall, I think all of us who partook in the gift economy course at Schumacher College this summer - 16 of us altogether, including Charles and Toni - left with a feeling of warmth towards the staff and all our fellow participants, as well as a strong sense of gratitude that such a delightful communitarian ethos can exist in such a small university. It was a real credit to the staff that not only did they invite Charles Eisenstein to the college and give him completely free reign to design his own short course, but they also seriously considered how they could apply the ‘gift economy' concept to the running of the campus. Incredibly, the prospect of shifting all course fees and all staff salaries onto a donations model was earnestly posited and discussed. It was also incredible that everyone was invited to sit in on this ‘fish bowl' conversation and contribute if we so wished, as if we were all bona fide alumni of the college after just a few days of attending a course. I was even given a hug by the lovely college administrator before I left in a taxi to catch my train back home.
What everyone really wants
So I remain very grateful that I attended Charles' retreat and had a brief experience of Schumacher College. As Charles explained in his own words, the real changes that are needed on this earth are not the technocratic, policy solutions stuff, but the kind of things we worked on during the course - the process of inner transformation, the rise of a new consciousness, the awareness that we live in a ‘gift world' of abundance. The meaning of life, I remember Charles saying at one point, is to identify your gifts and learn how to contribute them to the whole (or words to that effect). The point is that what everyone really wants, whoever they are, is to give completely of their gifts. It is not that our unleashed desires will cause havoc, as the ‘powers that be' might think, but that they will rather heal the world. Of course, most of the desires that we express today - for junk food, video games, consumer products and so on - are a poor substitute for our real desire to connect with one another and give of our gifts. Our society would fall apart if we all demonstrated our gifts, said Charles, as current social arrangements are predicated on a vast swathe of humanity suppressing their inborn talents and creativity. A true leader in the new society now being born, he said, is the one who sees the gifts in others and creates opportunities for those gifts to be given. One could base their entire spiritual practice on this one motivation, Charles said; to see the gift in others, to imagine what it must be like to be the other person, and to see each person that you meet as the bearer of gifts.
After being back home in the Olympics daze of London for a while now, I am left with much to ponder. How rare to meet someone who is capable of dissecting the finer points of reserve-free credit-based monetary systems, who at the same time conducts consciousness-raising workshops of the mind-body-spirit variety, and yet still manages to cut through the spiritual mumbo jumbo of New Age thinking. There must be few people in the new economy movement who are open to being filmed by Mystica TV on one day, interviewed by a leading expert in economics on the next, or else given an audience in a packed out community centre with hundreds of people. In Totnes, Charles' lecture in the local church was so overcrowded that he was egged on to climb into the pulpit as if giving a sermon - but even the broken speaker system didn't seem to faze him. He is not the sort of man that can easily be pigeon-holed, to say the least. This short article cannot do justice to the serious level of thinking that he has engaged in over recent years, as only a systematic study of his two most recent books can give a real appreciation of the subtlety and breadth of his ideas. I have no doubt that Charles Eisenstein will become a formative teacher and an inspiration for countless people who are working towards the "the new normal", as he puts it; "a new kind of society, a new relationship to the earth, a new experience of being human." As our present modes of social organisation continue to break down - a process that Charles believes is inevitable - I also have no doubt that the principles he espouses of the gift, sharing, connectedness and generosity will be foundational in building the more beautiful world that my heart tells me is possible.
* The four books recommended by Charles to read before the course began were: The Unsettling of America, by Wendell Berry; The Gift, by Lewis Hyde; Debt, by David Graeber; and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins.
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