When the Money Gods fall silent, what will become of their priests?

Over on Reality Sandwich, Charles Eisentein has an essay called Money and the Turning of the Age. Its premise is that money is based on a consensus story and only has value so long as the people believe the story. The story of money, he argues, is based on:

— infinite expansion of stuff produced;
— theft and monetization of cultural wealth, and
— arbitrary and ever-growing differences in power between the haves and have-nots.

“Money is merely a social agreement,” Eisentein says. “A story that assigns meaning and roles.”

But what happens when people stop believing the story? What happens when they refuse to play their assigned roles?

“Money and the Turning of the Age” makes the bold and provocative prediction that the current economic upheaval presages the inevitable end of “The Story of Money”. Basically Eisentein’s predicting an end to the way people in nation-states have been organizing themselves for the last two thousand years or so. It’s what you might call a pretty sweeping thesis.

He starts with an analysis of the USian government’s response to the meltdown:

The authorities hoped that by controlling the public perception of reality, they could control reality itself; that by the manipulation of symbols they could manipulate the reality they represent. This, in essence, is what anthropologists call “magico-religious thinking.” It is not without reason that our financial elites have been called a priesthood. Donning ceremonial garb, speaking an arcane language, wielding mysterious inscriptions, they can with a mere word, or a mere stroke of a pen, cause fortunes and nations to rise and fall.

You see, magico-religious thinking normally works. Whether it is a shamanic rite, the signing of an appropriations bill, or the posting of an account balance, when a ritual is embedded in a story that people believe, they act accordingly, playing out the roles the story assigns to them, and responding to the reality the story establishes.

[. . .]
Rituals and talismans affirm and perpetuate the consensus stories we all participate in, stories which form our reality, coordinate our labor, and organize our lives. Only in exceptional times do they stop working: the times of a breakdown in the story of the people. We are entering such times today. That is why none of the economic measures enacted so far to contain the crisis have worked, and why the current stimulus package won’t work either. None go deep enough.

He goes on to say that the current rituals are failing because they’ve reached their logical end; the ponzi scheme that is worldwide capitalism is collapsing. I think he may be on to something.

(The discussion here led me to think of lessons learned in anthropology class so long ago about what happens to cultures when the fundamental stories on which they are constructed give way. Cargo cults can arise, ghost dancing can take root, and eventually the bottom falls out and the people, without a culture to help them sort out overwhelming and contraditory sensory input, become overwhelmed and fall into lassitude, torpor, and despair.)

We are living, Eisenstein implies, in a kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” economy, but at some point we’re all going to see what’s before us. Then what?

We think that those Wall Street tycoons absconded with billions, but what are these billions? They too are numbers in computers, and could theoretically be erased by fiat. The same with the money we owe China. It could be gone with a simple declaration. We can thus understand the massive giveaways of money in the TARP, TALF, and PPIF programs as yet another exercise in perception management, though this time it is an unconscious exercise. These giveaways are ritual acts that attempt to perpetuate a story, a matrix of agreements, and the human activities that surround it. They are an attempt to uphold the magical power of the voodoo chits that keep the college grad on a career path and the middle-aged man enslaved to his mortgage; that give the power to a few to move literal mountains, while keeping the many in chains.

I think I’ve pretty much reached the limit of fair-use quotation of the article, so that will be the last excerpt. Let me do a brief summary of where his logic goes from there. We’re entering a deflationary depression, the inevitable result of too much debt. Where did the debt come from? From the enforced conversion of (social) wealth into private money.

Anyway, before we get to this proposition, which I find fascinating, Eisentein takes us on a tour of Marx’s idea of a “Crisis of Capital”, which is what we’re now in.

In brief, the idea of unlimited economic (material) expansion must at some point come up against the finite nature of the world’s resources and the political reality that people don’t need to put up with, forever, a story that keeps them in bondage. At some point the story breaks down.

What story will replace it? Well, it might be chaos and anarchy, or course. Eisentein doesn’t talk to much about that. He talks instead of a more hopeful, dare I say “new age-ian” story, which I’ll let you read for yourself.

I expect that his analysis will strike many readers, especially confirmed believers in what Wetmachine’s own Harold Feld calls “the Gods of the Marketplace”, as malarky.

I’m not so sure. Maybe Eisentein’s right. I think there may be some major readjusting going on here. My advice? Put on Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man and enjoy the spring weather while you can. One never knows when that tornado might be coming.

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