Funny Money: Social Illusions about Value, Reward, Cost, and Risk

Money is a funny phenomenon, funny-peculiar that is. Money has a lot of odd characteristics, most having something to do with social definitions and the assumptions that shape perception. It exists, for example, only because we have willed it so – it is a social construction. Money has value only because we value it – we instill it with value. No money has intrinsic value. But most people don’t believe that. “Real” money, they think, is inherently valuable.

Now here is where I get in trouble with the monetary realists – mostly “gold bugs.” These folks believe that gold has intrinsic value independent of human perception or definition. I once took an “independent study” class with a philosopher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I was supposed to read Karl Marx’s Capital. Well, it was a very big book and I didn’t exactly finish reading it; I skimmed a lot of it toward the end of the semester. Any college student knows what I’m talking about. So, yes, Marx was quite a scholar and economic researcher – unlike many of his followers. But it was the reaction of the professor to my apparently unorthodox views that I remember most distinctly. Well, I thought his views on both money and matter were rather peculiar too, and overly resolute.

He was convinced, based on what evidence I do not know, that atoms have intentionality, some sort of free will – as if they could do as they pleased. I think it had something to do with his trying to make sense of Marx’s materialism. Maybe he was trying to reconcile the obvious existence of purpose in humans with the mechanistic aspects of materialist determinism. He also asserted that gold has intrinsic value regardless of its relationship to humans. That contradicted other things I was learning that made much more sense to me. That semester I was taking a class in social psychology from Tomatsu Shibutani. He was teaching us about symbolic interaction and its central role in human behavior.

Golden Illusions, Symbolic Reality
Shibutani was a great teacher; he tied the theories and experimental work in social psychology directly to everyday experience. He was one of the most impressive teachers I ever had. I was really into that class. Shibutani was amazingly organized in drawing evidence and explanations from all the social sciences to demonstrate how people behave in relation to one another and the often illusory symbolic worlds we inhabit. So I wrote a paper for this philosopher. I explained how I thought money was essentially a symbolic process in which humans engaged to facilitate their economic relations, whatever their illusions about it. Who knows what Marx might have thought of my paper? But the result did not reflect the philosophy professor’s view of Capital. I cited my sources, but somehow he concluded that I’d plagiarized the whole thing from some author unknown. I didn’t; I explained that it was my interpretation of what I had been learning in social psychology applied to money as a socially constructed symbol of value. I got the impression that he didn’t believe I was capable of writing what I had written. I was offended. We argued. To my distinct indignation, he gave me a B.

That ‘academic’ experience was part of a series of things – including my military experience – that framed my sociological thinking. I was ultimately led to see much of human behavior as well as thought and emotion as based in illusions framed in symbolism. It’s not that our responses to experiencing the real world are not real or are necessarily mistaken. Instead, the thoughts and emotions about the world we experience indirectly respond to and help shape our perceptions. Perceptions are filtered and “edited” by what we already believe. They are always colored by the ideas and attitudes that we have previously acquired and are committed to.

A new phenomenon has to really get our attention in order for it not to be pushed into an old comfortable category. Global warming is a clear example of this. At any point in time, we come to the world with a “preconceived” framework for perceiving and interpreting our experience. In that sense, almost no experience is “pure.” Instead, it is tainted by our expectations. Those expectations are based on our pre-existing beliefs. Here’s the kicker: most beliefs are not a result of perception; they are the result of our being “socialized” into the culture in which we live.

Most of what we believe, we have learned from others and from the mass media that surround us, not from direct experience. But most of us don’t believe that since we define ourselves as “independent.” Any honest assessment of the mass persuasion of electoral politics ought to dissuade us of that illusion. Our perceptions are shaped by the culture within us and its manipulation by corporate-controlled mass media. That is why it is so difficult to face the new facts of climate disruption, the end of the growth economy, and the necessity to reorganize the way we relate to the planet and each other. Yes, many of us are in denial. These emergent realities do not fit the world view that has dominated our entire lives.

Untenable Beliefs in a Rapidly Changing World
Today, we live in the last stages of the dying culture of an extractive industrial economy of increasingly concentrated wealth, expanding poverty, massive waste, and flourishing ecological destruction. But that dying culture still shapes most of what we believe and the way we perceive the world. The industrial revolution began when the earth was not densely populated, and vast expanses of land and mineral wealth were not yet exploited. New technologies were just beginning to apply fossil-fuel energy to do work and reorganize the way we live. There was much room for expansion. The debt-based money system required continual expansion for a return on capital investment. The whole ideology of unlimited economic growth grew and took over the cultures of nations as they industrialized. We perceive value, reward, cost, and risk through the lens of that same dominant preconceived framework that industrial capital continues to sustain in the face of massive evidence that it will no longer work.

Money no longer represents value. Today, money – which is created and tightly concentrated and distributed by and in the interests of the power elites – controls value. The real costs of extractive industrial production are externalized by corporations to the people and planet in the form of increased poverty, diminished health and ecological destruction. The risks of continued economic growth and concentration of wealth are avoided by elites who have transferred those risks to the people and the planet. The power elites – financial and mega-corporate executives and their political allies – are temporarily insulated from risk by obscene salaries and bonuses, bribes, political cover, and gated compounds. But they won’t be protected much longer; Mother Nature makes no class distinctions.

We have already reached the tipping point of ecological destruction and climate disruption. Only massive social action to counter the in-place system of money-driven illusion of unlimited economic concentration and growth will have a chance to turn the tide. The illusions of money are not funny anymore.

Local Community Resilience to Reduce Climate Disruption

In some ways, Northern New Mexico may be ahead of other regions in building local community resilience and adapting to increasingly difficult environmental conditions. Santa Fe sports a reputation for one of the lowest per capita water usage rates in the nation. On the other hand, its recycling program is dismally inadequate. Over-dependence on a national economy that infuses cash into local businesses through tourism may be a risky strategy as climate disruption intensifies. Tourism may become a declining economic asset as conditions become more severe.[1] It has become almost a cliché to say that local economies must increasingly rely on local production to be sustainable. As the converging crises of climate, economy, and energy intensify, conditions will be less stable.This calls for building community resilience. How can this resilience be accomplished? So far, we see too much image, not enough substance, but we know deep down that we must reorganize our lives in exceptionally challenging ways.

Critics of climate action and the “sustainability movement” look to an imaginary prosperity driven by international trade in a fantasy-world of ever-growing energy use and unacknowledged waste. Like most Americans, the people of New Mexico participate in that fantasy in various ways. Maybe the most obvious is the extravagant highways speeds at which we drive our over-powered pickup trucks. Then, look at those busy “big box” stores and ask what of all that stuff do we really need. However, the “slow food” and “slow money” movements are taking root at some moderate level here.

From Corporate Dependency to Community Resilience

A burgeoning local organic farming industry in Northern New Mexico struggles to mature in the sparse high-desert valleys as the record-breaking drought continues. Local communities still depend mostly on national food distribution as California’s ever more severe drought continues to damage production in the “nation’s bread basket.” The U.S. depends on California’s factory farms for over ninety percent of many staple food crops. The vast majority of grain and feed crops are produced by giant Midwestern factory farms. Systems science has known for decades that large complex systems are vulnerable to catastrophic breakdowns and even collapse. The signs are there. Dependency on these mega-systems puts us all at high risk.

Climate forecasters predict that total precipitation, in the near-term anyway, may not be terribly low in Northern New Mexico. But early snow melt and a moderate snow pack means premature runoff and less usable water. In the hotter climate, evaporation accounts for a large amount of water loss. As seen elsewhere, extreme storms with sudden downpours result in flash floods, rather than building reservoir reserves. This year’s spring and early summer rains may produce extra fuel for wildfires in the Fall.

The climate disruption we already experience is part of a planetary problem brought on by the carbon emissions the “advanced” industrial nations have caused since the dawn of the industrial revolution over two centuries ago. It is cumulative and accelerating. Worse, its effects lag its causes, making the nastiest effects seem far off. It is already here and the only mitigating response is to drastically reduce further emissions to stave off far worse climate catastrophe than we have yet seen. To merely adapt to the evolving disturbances in our climate will not suffice. In the vulnerable Southwest, as elsewhere, increasingly extreme measures will have to be taken to give relatively stable communities a chance.

The growing climate crisis is now and it is urgent. If recent (and past) world-wide governmental responses and voluntary “commitments” to arbitrary reductions in carbon emissions are any measure, we are in deep trouble. They are not only fictions, but they bear no relation to the real requirements of climate mitigation based on the best science. Moreover, it is increasingly clear that we can neither rely on rationality among politicians nor wait for them to take the drastic measures that are necessary to avert the catastrophic convergence of climate disruption, poverty and violence around the world.[2] All the most powerful incentives are provided by the lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry and its mega-corporate allies. These powerful incentives, of course, point the politicians in exactly the wrong direction.

Resistance, Replacement, Resilience

The accelerating climate crisis requires massive mobilization of populations to take back control of their lives through Resistance, Replacement, and Resilience. Relatively small groups of people around the world are beginning to resist the pressures of the hyper-consumer culture. But majorities have not “just said no” to the Big-Box stores. The few resistors are replacing corporate dependency by building local economies, producing and buying locally, forming co-ops and resilient community institutions. These movements must grow rapidly. It is a race against time.

To replace corporate dependency with local community economic independence in harmony with living-earth systems requires a new vision. Creating sustainable local communities requires forging new ways and adapting the old ways to transform our relations with the earth and each other. We must capitalize on the natural elements of working with instead of against the earth systems upon which we all ultimately depend.[3]

Resilience comes not from adapting to climate chaos, but from creating viable local living  economies not dependent on the mega-industrial endless-growth global economy that causes climate chaos. Such local community economies must adapt to the increasingly difficult environmental conditions we face while replacing dependency on corporate products with self-sufficient community economics. Such resilient local communities will be the most sustainable and better able to respond to increasingly severe climate conditions. No small task.

The first principle of this New Great Transformation is that control of economies must shift from multinational corporations to local communities. Corporate trade legislation such as the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” attempts to steal national sovereignty over environmental, health, and labor rights worldwide. That, of course, would further constrain already subservient national governments. Control of the global economy is already mostly in the hands of the mega-corporations and financial elites. Power is concentrating in the largest institutions, which transcend location or nation. We need just the opposite.

The great challenge is to recognize our personal and cultural ways of living that must be changed, then figure out how to change them, together. Taking back control over community and economic life requires resistance to the mega-corporate domination of life ways, replacement of the extractive-industrial consumer culture of waste, and creating community resilience by living in harmony with the living earth systems we inhabit.

Only when many communities take these actions can the leviathan of extractive international-trade driven capital plundering earth resources and people be slowed. When earth-integrated local community resilience replaces profligate consumer culture, a social movement will have arisen from civil society, which will force governments around the world to constrain corporate plunder and slow carbon emissions to a point where human survival can be sustained.
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[1] NASA expects increasingly sever droughts in the Southwest and Central Great Plains, exacerbated by continued global warming. See Mark Fischetti, “U.S. Droughts Will Be the Worst in 1000 Years: The Southwest and central Great Plains will dry out even more than previously thought.” Scientific American, February 12, 2015. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/u-s-droughts-will-be-the-worst-in-1-000-years1/
[2] The “catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change” across the latitudes most vulnerable to early extreme weather events, mostly near the equator, is well under way, as well documented by Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2011.
[3] To shape a living economy in support of resilient communities, a lot of good ideas are contained in David Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015.

How to Create a Corporate State and Destroy the Planet

Ever wonder why President Obama insists that the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) be “fast-tracked” through Congress? Why does its content have to be kept secret from the Congress and the American people? Yes, members of Congress may view its drafts in a secure room but are not allowed to even take notes away with them. Under “Fast Track,” a bill cannot be debated or amended; it must simply be voted “up or down.” That in itself certainly lacks transparency and severely constrains the democratic process. If something is kept secret from me, I have to assume that it contains something I would object to if I knew what it was – probably something that would hurt me too. Secrecy has been a primary tool of tyranny across cultures and time. In the hands of powerful elites, secrecy is almost always a means to increase or maintain unjustified power. For a further motivational clue in this case, you could look at the composition of the group negotiating the treaty. This TPP thing is being written by corporate lobbyists and lawyers, with token representatives of labor or environmental groups. What gives? Okay, so it is pretty obvious that this so-called “free trade” agreement is being written in the interests of trans-national corporations that dominate international trade. Not surprising, of course. But this one reaches far beyond the administration merely pandering to the political interests of corporations. It is a question of national sovereignty – whether nations or corporations will have sovereignty over fundamental elements of political authority. NAFTA was only the beginning. We have no direct knowledge other than those initial drafts of chapters obtained and published by WikiLeaks. They alone are scary enough. Apparently, provisions in its 29 chapters allow mega-corporations to override national, state, and local laws on environment, worker safety, and even carbon emissions policies. It is easy for the uninformed to read paranoia into a claim that the corporations are taking control of the federal (and state) governments. But that is what has happened with other “trade agreements” that allow corporations to sue governments in corporate controlled tribunals for non-compliance, NAFTA being a prime example. Under such provisions, corporations can override national sovereignty; as a result, we are increasingly living in a “corporate state.” Corporate Profit Trumps Mitigating Climate Chaos In the case of the TPP, someone is chasing us whether we are paranoid or not. “TPP elevates corporations and corporate profits to and above the level of governments. TPP lets corporations sue governments for laws and regulations that cause them to be less profitable.”[1] Once governments and their laws are subordinated to international corporate tribunals, well, it is “game over” for national sovereignty over the things that matter to real people. Any national or local effort to uphold standards of environmental protection, labor safety, or efforts to constrain carbon emissions to avoid climate catastrophe will be denied by international corporate tribunals. Naomi Kline describes an obvious case of corporate interests subordinating local economic and planetary climate mitigation needs. An attempted project to bring an advanced Italian solar panel manufacturing operation to Ontario, Canada, would have boosted local employment. It also would have contributed to the necessary conversion of regional energy production to renewable energy. But under the threat of World Trade Organization rules that treat any preference for local manufacturing as a violation of “free trade,” the company withdrew its plans.[2] Ironically, the net gain in carbon emissions reduction by adopting renewable energy production can be wiped out by the carbon emissions of international shipping. For effective carbon emissions reduction, manufacturing of renewable energy technologies must occur near their location where they are to be installed. Indeed, for effective emissions control international trade must itself be curtailed. Consider, for example, almost half of China’s carbon emissions come from manufacture for export. In addition, all those giant container ships emit large quantities of carbon. Local and regional production of a wide variety of products must replace mega-corporate driven remote manufacture for international trade, if carbon emissions reduction is to reach meaningful levels to constrain global warming to livable limits. In this and many other ways, corporate “free trade” ideology expressed in international trade laws is trumping attempts to mitigate climate disruption. It is thereby threatening to wreak havoc on human populations around the world. The ideologies of unrestricted growth and profligate wasteful consumerism support this destructive economic model. The legal elevation of corporate profits over public policy directly increases the power of corporations have been building over governments and their people. It thereby establishes legal corporate sovereignty over all other authority in the world and prevents necessary social action to address the approaching climate catastrophe. Who benefits? Only the international mega-corporations do, at the expense of everyone. A Partially Exposed Coup d’état No wonder they want to keep it all a big secret until the TPP is passed by Congress. No wonder they want to restrict Congress from debating the pros and cons of the content of the bill and prohibit amendments. A coup d’état to overthrow a government is usually exercised in secret, without negotiation. And no wonder. The TPP usurps the public interest in key areas that affect the lives of everyone: environmental protections, labor practices and safety standards, intellectual property, and more broadly, the economic ‘rules of the game.’ We tend to think of revolutions in terms of rebellious generals and their troops storming the presidential palace in a “banana republic.” But today, an unprecedented corporate revolution is occurring in the form of international laws that give the mega-corporations sovereignty over everything. The secrecy of these negotiations includes the propaganda smokescreen that implies that it is just about “leveling the playing field” of trade rules. But only a few of the twenty nine chapters are about trade. What has been leaked so far, thanks to Wikileaks, indicates something far more odious. Much of the document deals with ways to assure corporate sovereignty over national interests by sanctifying profits above the interests of people – the public interest. In fact, it is about how the mega-corporations will rule both governments and the people around the world. The irony is that the secretly negotiated TPP deal by and for the corporations is intended to pass congress without discussion or public knowledge, masquerading as an economic benefit for the nation. And it is to be voted on to circumvent the already seriously damaged democratic process. It is an international treaty passed by congress and the governments of other major trading nations. Any attempt to change it would have to be approved by all the nations that signed it. Get ready to live under a corporate-police state, or join the effort to stop it now. Otherwise, game over for saving even a shred of democracy. __________ 1 Dave Johnson, “Stop Calling the TPP a Trade Agreement – It isn’t.” Reader Supported News. http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/30426-stop-calling-the-tpp-a-trade-agreement-it-isnt. 2 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. Chapter 2.