For many Americans, the time has come to reassess our relations with the economy that is being driven off the cliff by the creation and hoarding of phantom money by the very few and catastrophic burden of debt for the rest of us. The economy is controlled by the Big Banks and it has not worked for ordinary citizens. The economy of the plutocrats has kept the nation in debt. At the same time it has made it more and more difficult to make a living by simply working at a job.
This situation raises several serious questions about the nature of money itself and how it is created, managed, distributed, and used in our economy. Most of us are not schooled in the technical aspects of ‘money and banking’ or the philosophy of money, neither of which quite rises to the level of science. But we know that something is very wrong with the way money flows – mostly up – in today’s economy. Just like blood in our arteries and veins, money must circulate broadly to assure a healthy society. One might consider today’s mega-banks as aneurisms in the economy’s aorta, poised to burst. Surgery is required.
Time is Life
Some recent criticisms of contemporary economic culture have looked at money from the larger perspective of life itself. We have all heard the cliché, “Time is money.” An alternative view is that “Time is life.” What does that mean? Well, time is all we really have in this life and what we do with that time is our life. When we complain that we “don’t have time” for things we deem important, it is because we do not make time for them. Our time is mediated by money, which controls our access to the essentials of living.  Thus, money controls much of our life, so political control of the money system is critical for making a living — life.
The cult of American Individualism would blame the victim of poverty for not exercising her/his “individual freedom.” But where is the individual freedom of the increasingly common fast-food or other service worker who has to work two jobs just to pay the rent? Such admonitions assume a perfect world in which anyone who works hard can achieve anything. As Barbara Ehrenreich and others have demonstrated, for many Americans, hard work is simply not enough.
You can’t make time you do not have. If you have to work at minimum wage or less, it is necessary to work most waking hours to avoid homelessness. As middle-income jobs are “outsourced” to China or other super-low wage nations, the middle class shrinks because jobs with a living wage continue to disappear from the American economy. Corporate controlled international trade agreements such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the new TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) supersede national sovereignty over environmental quality and worker rights. They are negotiated in secret because voters would not tolerate them if they knew of their terms. “When Corporations Rule the World,” the people lose their basic rights along with power over their own lives and the ability to make a living.
What Christian Parenti  has called a “catastrophic convergence” of accelerating poverty, violence, and climate disruption is already producing chaos around the world. An impending sense that the party is over is also beginning to bring about a sea change in the image ordinary people have of their lives in relation to both the economy and the planet. Profligate consumption and waste are reaching their limits as resources have passed their peak of easy extraction. Increased costs of extraction cascade into manufacturing costs and cannot be controlled. Capital is moved to locations where labor costs can be reduced. But this results in post-industrial markets shrinking due to the loss of wages that would otherwise be used to buy products. It’s a downward spiral.
A major cultural reassessment is under way. The economy is obviously failing to serve the people. The concentration of wealth in the top 1% of the top 1% is now greater than at the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is unsustainable. Any economy is sustained by the effective circulation of money as the means for allocating time for doing work. Capital exists only to the extent that labor organizes material – the production of value. Yet, our economy has become subservient to a financial elite that increasingly “makes” phantom money [false capital] by generating more debt without economic productivity.
The fundamental purpose of money in the economy has been subverted. Corporate media attempt to maintain the illusion that multinational corporate capitalism is just that good old Adam Smith version of “small business” and “free” markets in bucolic communities. But we are closer to a corporate police state than any imagined democratic capitalism. Whether they articulate it in such economic terms, people know that the system is rigged. They also know that it is the corporate control of the economy and political system that is doing the rigging. Not only do the people have little or no chance of making a living in that rigged system, but those who do so sustain the larger problem.
A living Economy to Thwart Climate Catastrophe
So, what is to be done? When a system is rigged the only way to break out is to turn away from that system. This is being done in little ways all around the country. Most scientists know that massive programs to stop or at least slow climate chaos must be initiated at the national and international levels. But the system is rigged against that as it accelerates toward the convergence of climate, economic, and population catastrophes causing mass starvation/migration, resource wars, and social chaos. Energy production and wasteful consumption must be severely curtailed, but how?
Parenti argues that: “We cannot wait for a socialist, or communist, or anarchist, or deep-ecology, neoprimitive revolution; nor for a nostalgia-based localista conversion back to the mythical small-town economy of preindustrial America as some advocate…Instead, we must begin immediately transforming the energy economy. Other necessary changes can and will flow from that.” (p. 241) Parenti, like so many others who see what is needed, fails to articulate how such a massive transformation can be accomplished. He says that it “will require a relegitimation of the state’s role in the economy.” But that is precisely what the power elites will not allow – except, of course, where that role entails the massive economic subsidies the state already provides to the mega-corporations. So, he is partly right and partly wrong. He is right to say that we cannot wait, but for what? He is wrong in assuming the energy economy will be transformed from the top without revolutionary change in the structure of political power.
First, we cannot wait for the federal government to act in the public interest – it is controlled by the corporate interests tied to the fossil-fuel economy. The energy economy must be transformed immediately, but how? Even if Bernie Sanders were elected president, the hypocritical Corporate Democrats and the magical-thinking Corporate Republicans would still be in control of legislation and continue to serve their corporate masters. Second, the only action that cannot be stopped by the political-economic elites is the grass-roots action of growing numbers of people organized to change their lives to make a living without depending on the corporate consumer economy. That is both very difficult to do and the only viable path available.
Parenti is right in saying that the immediate task is specific: drastically cut carbon emissions. But that entails a myriad of even more specific tasks, which if achieved will have arisen from below, demonstrating human resilience in the face of corporate-state paralysis. So much to do, so little time.
1 David C. Korten, Change the Story, change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015.
2 Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.
3 David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2001.
4 Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2011.