by Charles Eisenstein

The Age of Separation, the Age of Reunion, and the convergence of crises that is birthing the transition

The Anonymous Power


The monetized life is a lonely life because it reduces the people in our lives to anonymous occupiers of roles, and also because financial transactions are by their nature generally free of obligation. Once the money has been paid and the goods delivered, the transaction is over. No future relationship is implied. Each party has discharged his or her obligation.

To be financially secure means to have enough money to discharge all of our obligations, leaving no need to depend on anyone’s favors or gifts. It means we are now free of obligations—in other words, we are independent. But another word for obligations is “ties”. In fact, the word “obligate” means to place a tie upon someone (ob = on, ligate = to tie). The closed money transaction leaves little or no tie between the transactees. Someone enjoying financial security will never have to rely on personal relationships with other people. He won’t need anyone to do him any favors—he can pay for your services, thank you. Financial security means that you are not dependent on the goodwill of any individual person. If the farmer who grows your food decides he doesn’t like you, no matter, you can pay someone else to grow it.

Gift transactions are quite different: they are open-ended and personal. The transaction is incomplete, leaving an obligation—a tie—between the giver and the receiver. Giving a gift creates or affirms a social relationship; it connects the giver and the receiver. Gifts usually imply future gifts, whether reciprocal or to someone else down the line. Moreover, gifts usually don’t have a standard value; their value depends on the unique relationship between giver and receiver, and it reinforces that relationship. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons we give gifts in the first place: to become more tied to, and thus less independent of, the person receiving. Money is the opposite. Money is suitable for conducting trade among strangers, such as when any one of us buys something at a supermarket, a Wal-Mart, or online, and it does not make them into anything more than strangers. Money has the same value no matter who gives it to you—it does not imply or necessitate a relationship. In fact, money issues often complicate or destroy relationships.

Economics and common sense associate money with self-interest. It should not be surprising, then, that the gift transactions that so sharply contrast with money transactions also generate a different sense of self, as well as different perceptions of what is in the interest of that self. In gift-based societies, the ties created by the gift usually extend beyond two people to involve the whole tribe or village. Lewis Hyde, in his classic The Gift, observes that gifts move in circles, and as these circles spread outward, the sense of self spreads as well to include the entire gift-giving network. “The ego’s firmness has its virtues, but at some point we seek the slow dilation. . . in which the ego enjoys a widening give-and-take with the world and is finally abandoned in ripeness.”[2] The contrary process, in which commodity exchange replaces gift-giving networks, corresponds to a narrowing of self into a lonely, alienated ego.

When the relationships of gift-giving in a community are replaced by monetary transactions, the fabric of the community unravels. The tight-knit communities of primitive societies were held together by intricate customs of gift-giving; indeed, the renegade ex-financier Bernard Lietaer cites the still-surviving gift-giving customs of Japan as a reason why that society has resisted some of the community-destroying effects of the modern economy. Although it is perhaps an unwarranted conclusion to say that communities arise out of gift-giving (and not also the other way around), Lietaer’s definition of a community is an elegant one: “a group of people who honor each other’s gifts, who can trust that their gifts will be reciprocated some day, in some way.” In the absence of such trust, the interests of the self are the accumulation and control of resources that defines self-interest in a money economy.

The gift mentality of hunter-gatherers extended beyond kith and kin to include their entire environment, as did their trust that their needs would be provided. Whether by human or natural agency, the gift circles back to enrich the giver. Thus it was that the hunter-gatherer was uninterested in accumulating property. In the realm of the gift, accumulation is senseless.

All this changed with the transition to agriculture. Agriculture, which requires an input of labor to reconfigure nature into a more productive species mix, fosters a mentality of taking, not merely receiving gifts freely offered. This psychological transition was a gradual one: we still speak of the “gifts of the land”, but is it a true gift when we must manipulate the giver? Moreover, the rhythm of agriculture includes a phase of accumulation and storage, which are essential to the security of the farmer. The wealthiest farmer is the one with the greatest store of grain. The greatest lord in an agricultural society is he who controls the greatest productive assets. The long, slow demise of gift mentality goes hand in hand with the shift in thinking that arose with civilization. Money is a manifestation of this shift, but not its deepest cause. It only reinforces the scarcity-based accumulative thinking that inevitably accompanies the separation of self.

The assumption of scarcity is at the very root of economics, in which exchange happens when one person has a “need” or a “want” that is difficult or impossible to fulfill oneself, but that another person can fulfill more easily. Hunter-gatherers had virtually no such needs, and subsistence farmers have very few. We can see economic growth, then, as reflecting an escalation of neediness, an intensification of the state of being in want. Today, inundated in an unprecedented deluge of material conveniences and luxuries, we are nonetheless desperately in want. Think of that phrase, to be in want. I want, I want, I want. To be constantly in want is the very definition of poverty, no matter how large one’s house or bank account. By that measure, ours is perhaps the poorest society the world has ever known.

The breakdown of community under the assault of the money economy is well-documented wherever money has taken the place of traditional reciprocity. Helena Norberg-Hodge gives an especially clear account of this process in her book, Ancient Futures. She describes the impact of monetization in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, where generations-old customs of labor exchange among neighbors allowed each farmer to harvest his crop in time without the need to hire help. After labor became a commodity and people grew dependent upon money to survive, this custom faded away. Farmers had to use hired laborers, drawing them further into the money economy and making them dependent upon the sale of their crops (and thus susceptible to fluctuations in global commodities markets).

In sharp contrast to the monetized world of financial security, which inexorably separates everyone from everyone else, a gift economy is an economy of obligation and dependence. Financial security is not true independence, but merely dependence on strangers, who will only do the things necessary for your survival if you pay them. Would you rather be dependent on strangers, or on people you know? Well, that probably depends on how you treat the people you know. Thus the monetized life removes some of the incentives for people to adhere to social and ethical norms. Dissolution of community is built in to our system of money. The monetization of life dissolves communities, and the dissolution of community necessitates the further monetization of life.

The distancing and anonymizing effects of money make it unlikely that the people we depend on economically are our friends. Meanwhile, our social circles, our friends, usually perform specialized functions that are not directly related to our lives at all. Work and socializing are separate. In fact it is often considered in bad taste, or a threat to the friendship, to become economically involved with someone even when it is possible. Consider as an example a hypothetical group of friends: a software engineer, a professor at a university, a podiatrist, a lawyer, a real estate agent, an insurance agent, and an artist. None of these people depend on each other to meet any other need but socializing. The lawyer need not buy art from the artist. The real estate agent can easily go to any podiatrist. The engineer’s children probably won’t be educated by that particular professor. The group of them get together every other weekend and have dinner. Sometimes they’ll watch a football game or go on a picnic. A typical group of friends. They get along just fine, and there really is no reason for them not to get along, simply because there is no opportunity for any conflicts of interest to arise.

Conflicts of interest only arise when, say, the podiatrist has a legal problem and chooses his friend the lawyer, when the artist wants to buy a house and chooses the real estate agent, when the professor buys insurance from the insurance agent. All of a sudden things become touchy and awkward. When it comes to money, people start to wonder, “Am I being taken advantage of?” The artist feels like the real estate agent is treating her “like a client,” trying to sell her a house. The podiatrist is secretly outraged by the high fee her lawyer friend is charging. The professor wonders whether perhaps he is overinsured. It’s so much simpler to keep friends and business separate. Indeed many people make it a matter of principle never to mix the two. They keep the relationship between themselves and their lawyer, their doctor, their insurance agent and so forth, all purely “professional.” It would seem that the secret to preserving a friendship is to remain completely independent of one another, at least in the economic realm.

Whereas in the past we were intimately connected to the people we materially depended on, today our economic relationships are increasingly separate from our social relationships, to the extreme where money issues often ruin friendships. When we no longer have economic ties to our friends, we must pay someone instead. Pay whom? If we are “rational”, whomever offers the cheapest price for the same service. Whenever any product or service becomes a standardized commodity, price becomes the sole basis of differentiation. Competition is the flip side of depersonalization. We are set into competition with each other, not necessarily because this is human nature, but because the ubiquitous pressure of money removes any other basis for choice.

Money opens the door to pressures that are distinctly unfriendly. It is not very nice to maximize your rational self-interest. Yet that is what our present money system compels us to do. Yes, better to keep money out of the friendship. The only problem is, when all of life has been converted to money, we must then keep all of life out of the friendship, too, leaving us with superficialities. This separation of the spiritual needs of friendship and the material needs of economic relationships reflects the Cartesian separation of spirit and matter. Friendship without material interdependency is usually just as anemic, just as superficial as spirituality divorced from the real world.

I suppose I do enjoy some of my friendships in which all we do is talk, but niceness, partying, eating and talking are nothing on which to base a community. In real communities, people depend on each other. They are forced to get along, because they need each other. They must learn to accommodate each other’s faults. Acceptance is crucial to each person’s survival. This stands in sharp contrast to most so-called “on-line communities,” where exiting the community is as simple as hitting the delete key.

In former times, mutual dependency and the need for joint creativity cemented friendships and gave ample opportunity to become, in common cause, part of something greater than ourselves. In small farming communities, for example, neighbors and relatives would help each other with the harvest. They would help each other with the many projects that were too big for one family, like building a barn or a house. They would care for each other’s animals during times of illness, mourning, weddings, and the like. They also depended upon each other—people they knew personally—for entertainment, music, stories, and other forms of culture, of which they were not mere consumers but coproducers. Sometimes their very survival depended on cooperation.

That is why in the past, it was a very serious matter to be shunned by the community. If the local doctor, the local grocer, the local weaver, the local blacksmith refused to serve you, you couldn’t just “pay someone else to do it.” Moving to another part of the country was a big deal, because you had to become part of a new community. Nowadays moving to another part of the country necessitates very little change in lifestyle—you can procure all the necessities (and luxuries) of life in the same franchise stores anywhere you go. All you need is money. You need not get along with anyone or even, thanks to this anonymous power, know anyone by name.

There is another reason, besides mutual material dependency, why ostracism was one of the worst punishments possible in ancient societies. It wasn’t so much that we depended on our social relations for survival: hunter-gatherers and primitive farmers can generally survive pretty well on their own, though life is harder without the sharing and reciprocity of a group. Rather, one’s sense of identity, the answer to the question “Who am I?” was derived from our station in the social web. Primarily, we were defined by our kinship ties; secondarily, we were defined by our skills, experiences, and vocation. Who am I? I am John’s brother, Jimi’s dad, Laura’s uncle, Cathy’s cousin; Dana’s brother in law. In a traditional society, each person’s recognized kin network extended through hundreds of familiar faces, united by customs of reciprocity and by stories of grandfathers and great-grandmothers, fading back into the time of legend and myth. To be expelled from the village or the tribe was to be shorn of one’s identity, a fate perhaps even worse than death.

In America today not only the community but even the extended family has been shattered as a viable social unit. The nuclear family is the rule; as often as not the father and mother live separately. Grandparents, uncles, and cousins are occasional visitors, and many adults go years without seeing their cousins, or even their brothers and sisters. In our highly mobile age, where it is nothing to move across the continent to take a new job, our relatives are often scattered across the country. Outside the immediate family, school, and workplace, the faces we see daily are the faces of strangers. And of the faces known to us, really only the family is at all intimate, at all familiar with the stories of our lives.

The result is that we lack the means to establish a strong self-identity. No one knows our story. Human beings have always defined themselves in great part through their relationships with others, building a common story defining each of its actors. Now these stories have been splintered into tiny four-person units (I am exaggerating a little bit) that are below the threshold for robust self-definition. Unlike in the traditional small village or tribe, where everyone knew your story, and where, knowing everyone else’s story, you had a context to create a solid story of self, today we interact day-in and day-out with outsiders. We maintain our private lives, and know little of the lives of our coworkers, our customers, our colleagues, our students, our teachers, our neighbors, or anyone else outside the home.

In tandem with the ascent of money-based relationships, the realm of the private has expanded at an accelerating rate through modern history. Societies always had some realm of the private, a certain scale of intimacy in which some functions, such as lovemaking, childbirth, and defecation, were carried out in seclusion from most of society, and in which other functions were completely public. Today we encase our entire lives, almost, in the private boxes of our homes, which have, not coincidentally, doubled in size since the 1950s—a literal, physical manifestation of the burgeoning of the private realm.

In addition to an eroded sense of identity, the physical and social isolation that occurs in the boxes of modern society contributes to a near-universal loneliness and boredom. The lonely housewife isolated in her suburban cage is an emblem for our disconnected lives, insulated by the walls of our specialized roles as well as by the infrastructure of suburbia, interfacing with other lives through the impersonal medium of money.

The fragmentation of society that has followed from the economics of the Machine presents a tremendous business opportunity. When tribe and village, clan and extended family have been shattered, the resulting emotional void creates a demand for substitute relationships. The weak sense of self-identity that springs from our isolation leaves us extremely vulnerable to consumerism, which seeks to define who we are by what we own. We are tempted to define ourselves through our sneakers— “Be like Mike,” the Nike ads used to say—and through our cars, our houses, our watches, our clothing, our sports teams. Even more insidiously, we seek out new stories to replace the missing stories of kin and community in which we once embedded ourselves. While some vestiges of “family stories” remain, the story-telling function has by and large been usurped once again by remote professionals: the TV and movie producers on the one hand, and the news media and educational establishment on the other. These institutions provide us with new stories to answer the question, “Who am I?” The entertainment world feeds us stories about total strangers. TV dramas and soap operas bestow the illusion of being intimately familiar with people’s lives. Such shows tap into the inborn identity-building function of the psyche, but that function is truncated when those intimately viewed lives off in TV-land never feed back into our own.

Meanwhile, the larger stories of Where did we come from? and Why are we here? have been professionalized as well. Instead of myths and legends, we have history and the news that exploit, for political and economic ends, our need for a Story of the People by which to identify ourselves. In the worst case, people in their desire for a story by which to define themselves will adopt one of racial or national chauvinism, such as have underlain much of the horrific history of the last century.

People who are firmly ensconced in a local, kinship-based community are less susceptible to consumerism and fascism alike, because both base their appeal on a need for self-identity. Therefore, to introduce consumerism to a previously isolated culture it is first necessary to destroy its sense of identity. Here’s how: Disrupt its networks of reciprocity by introducing consumer items from the outside. Erode its self-esteem with glamorous images of the West. Demean its mythologies through missionary work and scientific education. Dismantle its traditional ways of transmitting local knowledge by introducing schooling with outside curricula. Destroy its language by providing that schooling in English or another national or world language. Truncate its ties to the land by importing cheap food to make local agriculture uneconomic. Then you will have created a people hungry for the right sneaker.

The transition from a society based on gifts, through the stages of barter, commodity currencies, precious metals, and the present-day financial system, has taken thousands of years in some places, and has been introduced quite suddenly in others. It continues to this day: More and more of our human abilities, skills, relationships, and culture are becoming the subject of property and therefore of money. We are in fact nearing the culmination of a vast historical process: the conversion into financial capital of a variety of other forms of wealth that were never before the subject of purchase, sale, and ownership, that were never before associated with money, but were instead held in common, by a community or a society—the commonwealth. As they become monetized, the money-associated qualities of anonymity, scarcity, and alienation encroach ever-further on those remaining areas of human beingness where the dynamics of the gift still hold.

These other forms of wealth are sometimes referred to as social capital. I have found it illuminating to distinguish them further into social capital, cultural capital, spiritual capital, and natural capital. The distinctions among these four kinds of non-money capital are somewhat artificial, but have been useful to me in perceiving just how deeply the conversion of life into money has reached. I introduce the new terms because they help access dimensions of our impoverishment that often go unrecognized.

The story behind the conversion of each of these kinds of wealth, and the effects that conversion has had, sheds light onto the nature of property, the nature of money, and the fundamental understanding of self and world that goes along with it. The dissolution of community around the world, the filling up of our neighborhoods with strangers, the loneliness and anonymity of modern society, the demise of the extended family, the despoliation of the planetary ecosystem, the shortening of children’s attention spans . . . all spring from our money system. And money, the great anonymizing power, has even deeper roots in our sense of self. The long transition from gifts to money, from giving to keeping, is written into our very self-definition. Together, our self-definition and its monetary manifestation constitute a pattern that is rapidly propelling us toward social and environmental calamity.

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[2] Hyde, Lewis. The Gift. Vintage Books, New York, 1979. p. 17.

Creative Commons Non-Commercial Copyright2008 Charles Eisenstein