The Trap of Money (and How to Escape It)

BY SOFO ARCHON

Artwork: Zoe Elizabeth Norman & Kitty Forster

It is common for “spiritual” teachers and self-help coaches to state that money is “just neutral energy” whose effects — whether positive or negative — depend on how we use it. Money itself, they claim, is not inherently evil, but can be used for evil purposes when it falls in the hands of evil people. When used by good people, however, it can be nothing but a great vehicle for turning the world into a better place.

My take on money is different: although I agree that it’s not inherently evil, I don’t see it as neutral energy — at least not as it exists today. Yes, money can take positive or negative energy depending on how we use it, but how we use it fundamentally depends on the monetary system it is generated by and the wider economic system it exists in. And in the economic system that we have today, money is mostly a vehicle of destruction and suffering — not simply because of how some “evil” people choose to use it, but because of the conditions and incentives the economic system creates by its very design.

To understand what I mean, let’s consider how money is created: as interest-bearing debt. That’s because, when money is created, it is given out to people as loans with interest attached to it, which they have to pay off (or else lose their homes or/and other assets). Therefore, the amount of debt that exists in the world exceeds the amount of money in circulation (for the interest doesn’t exist in the money supply) — a condition that forces people to compete with each other in order to survive. And in that competitive game for survival, inevitably some people win while others lose (in fact, most people are on the side of losers, and only a few truly win). Hence, the 1% possessing more wealth than the bottom half of the human population. Hence, the 1 billion people going hungry. Hence, the 40 million slaves existing today. Hence, the manipulation and exploitation of human against human, as well as the violence and warfare that exists to this day.

The other main reason why money is destructive in our economic system is that the latter requires endless growth and consumption to sustain high levels of employment. In this system, people need to be employed in order to make money — and therefore a living — and to do that, they need to be constantly selling stuff. The more products and services sold in the market, the more money is circulating in the economy, and thus the more people are employed. On the contrary, the less stuff people consume, the fewer people are employed, and the less people are able to earn a living. What this means is that in this system, it is an economic necessity that the sacred and beautiful Earth is constantly converted into commodities so people can make profit off them. Hence, the rainforests being cut down. Hence, the land animals being abused and killed by the billions each year. Hence, the oceans being overfished, the fossil fuels and minerals being depleted, and the topsoil being eroded.

Now, you might say: “You’re right, Sofo, money has caused tremendous destruction and suffering in society and the planet. But it has also brought a lot of prosperity, healing and happiness.” You might point to the companies investing tons of money into the manufacture of eco-friendly products and the development of renewable energy technologies. Or to the philanthropists spending billions of dollars into feeding the poor or building schools and hospitals that provide free access to education and medical care. Or to the vast amounts of money being spent into the creation of great works of art in theater and cinema.

And here’s my response: Yes, some money is being used for positive purposes, but for the most part it’s being used for negative ones. For example, consider the trillions of dollars being spent each year by the advertising industry to persuade the masses to buy stuff they don’t need, or the trillions of dollars being spent each year by the armies of the world in preparation of war. Concerning the environmentaly-friendly products and technologies being developed by some companies, they won’t be able to make much of a difference in a fundamentally anti-environmental system. When it comes to the philanthropists, they are only doing patchwork, trying to deal with the symptoms of a sick society, without addressing the root causes of poverty and economic inequality. Plus, how do the billionaires get their billions in the first place? They get them by exploiting the poor, only to spend a tiny percentage of their net worth back to them, and that often just for publicity reasons. Lastly, regarding money being invested in the creation of great works of art, there’s a thousandfold more money being invested in low-quality “art” created for the sole reason of generating profit.

If money truly achieves anything in this system, that is to provide certain incentives that help coordinate human activity in service of endless economic growth and so-called development. That is, through the threat of poverty, homelessness, starvation and death, our monetary system by design forces people to do work they dislike doing and which they’d never choose under different circumstances. So, what could be the solution to this problem and the others described above? How could people live differently, doing work they love without having to struggle for survival, compete with each other, and destroy the very planet they depend on and share with countless non-human beings?

When talking about economic change, most activists, scholars, economists and politicians suggest reforming the economic system — meaning, finding ways to “improve” it, mainly by implementing stronger regulations. Such regulations include taxing the rich, raising the minimum wage, restricting fossil fuel consumption, and reducing plastic production. What those people don’t seem to understand though is that in a system where money rules the entire world, money rules the government too, and hence its regulations. It’s not surprising, therefore, that most attempts to regulate the system against its inherent destructive tendencies have largely failed.

The change that is needed has to go much deeper — as deep as the foundations of the economic system. More specifically, we need to structurally redesign the economy so that it is as far removed from money, trade and markets as possible. If you think about it, nobody (or at least, nearly nobody) really wants money itself — they want what money can buy. Money doesn’t have value in itself — you can’t eat it or do anything else with it, other than perhaps use it as burning material to make fire (and that only works for paper money, not for the bits on computers that most money consists of). Moreover, nobody really enjoys competing in the market for the sole purpose of earning profit — they are just forced to, as I’ve already explained. So the question is, how can people satisfy their needs without having to engage in trade?

To answer this question, it’s important to first point out that we possess the technical means to satisfy the needs of each person alive. Contrary to popular belief, the Earth has enough resources to go around, if used wisely — which currently are not. For example, there’s enough food to feed every hungry stomach in the world, but about half of the global food production is being wasted. Similarly, there is enough water, housing, and energy. In other words, the problem that humanity is faced with isn’t technical, but economic: how resources are being distributed. Now that we’ve made that clear, let’s see how a true economy (that is, an efficient, fair and non-destructive one) would look like.

The first and most important step for designing such an economy is to create an “access” society — that is, a society where people have free access to what they need, starting with their most fundamental needs: nutritious food, clean potable water, a roof to live under and sufficient energy. For example, imagine that each area of a city has enough organic community gardens (supplemented with vertical farms, where needed) to provide ample food enough for everyone living in it. Nobody of those people would starve or have to engage in trade in order to pay for food, for it will be freely available for everyone!

Once people’s basic needs are covered, the idea of access can be expanded to include other aspects of the economy, such as product usage. If you think about it, people don’t want to own most of the products they use — they just want access to them. For example, let’s consider tools, and in particular power drills. Currently, it is estimated that the average power drill is used for just 15 minutes during its entire lifetime, and most households have at least one of them. How unecessary and wasteful that is! Why not instead give people free access to power drills they can share through, let’s say, tool libraries? If you think that this idea is far-fetched, consider the book library, an institution that has existed for hundreds of years: anyone who wants to read a book, can borrow it from the library for free, and then return it so others can read it too. By sharing — instead of owning — stuff, not only will all people have access to pretty much everything they need, but also far less resources will be extracted and wasted.

Now, in transition, the introduction of certain economic policies would be immensely helpful. One of them is the so-called Universal Basic Income (UBI) — that is, a guaranteed payment given to everyone, regardless of their personal economic situation. A UBI would help in two ways: firstly, it will provide people with a stable income as jobs are being lost via the implementation of an access society (since people won’t be buying and selling as much stuff anymore, and hence less money will be moving around), and, seconly, it will free people from the need to engage in tedious, degrading, competitive labor. Instead, as income becomes decoupled from labor, people will be able to engage in meaningful, fullfiling work in true service to society and the Earth.

When economic growth is rendered obsolete, other policies could be introduced, such as the adoption of eco-friendly product design, localization of production and distribution, as well as surveying and tracking of the Earth’s resources. In the meantime, stronger regulations of the current system could be applied, including heavily taxing the rich, improving working conditions, reducing plastic production and fossil fuel consumption, and forcing businesses to pay for the environmental and social damage they cause. But, as pointed out earlier, those regulations are not effective in containing the ferocious beast our economic system is, and should only be seen as a temporary fix, not as the end goal. The end goal should be to create a system that doesn’t need extrenal, forced regulation, but a system that regulates itself from within. Yet until that happens, such regulations would be beneficial.

I hope that this article helped you to better understand what’s wrong with our monetary — and by extention — economic system, and what are some of the steps needed to be taken in order to move toward a healthy economy. In the near future, I intend to write a longer article with more detailed critical analysis of our economic system, as well as an expanded guide on how we could escape it, but for now this is the general idea.

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