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The end of commodification

By Nick Rose - posted Thursday, 17 January 2013

I cannot predict how the Age of Reunion will unfold in linear time. I do know, however, that by the end of our lifetimes, my generation will live in a world unimaginably more beautiful than the one we were born into. And it will be a world that is palpably improving year after year…Mines and quarries will barely exist, as we reuse the vast accumulation of materials from the industrial age. We will live in dwellings that are extensions of ourselves, eat food grown by people who know us, and use articles that are the best that people in the full flow of their talents could make them…most of the time, the loudest noises we hear will be the sounds of nature and the laughter of children…If this description evokes anger, despair or grief, then it has touched our common wound, the wound of separation. Yet the knowledge of what is possible lives on inside each of us, inextinguishable… (Sacred Economics, pp445-6)

Sacred Economics is a hugely ambitious book. It takes aim at the most basic intellectual and moral foundations of our modern industrial societies. The author, Charles Eisenstein, is fully aware that many of his arguments and proposals will seem naïve, utopian and hopelessly idealistic to sceptical readers, versed in the realities of current-day economic theory and practice. However, as he puts it, these ideas only 'await a deepening of the crisis for the unthinkable to become common sense.'

In this, Eistenstein is following the Machiavellian thinking of none other than Milton Friedman, who wrote in his preface to Capitalism and Freedom that:


Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around…Our basic function [as intellectuals] is to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

Friedman's crisis came in the form of the 'stagflation' of the 1970s – the combination of the recessionary effects of the two OPEC oil shocks (1973-4 and 1979) and declining business profitability stemming in part from the peak of trade union power and militancy. The inability of Keynesian social democracy to deal with that conundrum paved the way for the counter-revolutions led by Thatcher and Reagan, and the ushering in of the neoliberal era.

Eistenstein's crisis is nothing less than 'the crisis of civilization'. This crisis, he says, results from the fact that an endlessly-expanding financial system, founded on usury (the practice of lending money at interest), means that so much of the natural and human world has been commodified (converted into money) that, collectively, we are effectively destitute and bankrupt. The insatiably voracious nature of the contemporary financial sector means that it is cannabilising the so-called 'real' economy of goods and services, on which it ultimately depends for its own growth.

This crisis is more than simply 'the end of economic growth', although that will be a central feature of it. Having regard to recent warnings of a 'lost decade' (issued by that well-known body of radicals, the International Monetary Fund) and continued downward revisions of growth, it does seem that whatever the next few years hold in store, 'normal' levels of economic growth may not be in the offing. But for Eisenstein, the crisis is terminal rather than temporary, the 'final stage of what began in the 1930s' (p129). That crisis was resolved, in the first instance with catastrophic world war, then with a permanent post-war militarised economy, and more recently with the commodification of almost anything imaginable (including water, soil, and now the atmosphere).

Eisenstein says we have reached the limits of this frantic process of commodification: 'there is no more room for the conversion of life and the world into money' (p131). No annulment of debts, no redistribution of wealth, no economic stimulus will do the trick of returning us to economic growth. We are, as he puts it, 'maxed out':

Maxed out on nature's capacity to receive our wastes without destroying the ecological basis of civilization, maxed out on society's ability to withstand any more loss of community and connection; maxed out on our forests' ability to withstand more clear-cuts; maxed out on the human body's capacity to stay viable in a depleted, toxic world. (p135)


Eisenstein therefore expects a 'Great Unraveling of the money system', first taking the form of 'persistent deflation, stagnation and wealth polarization, followed by social unrest, hyperinflation, or currency collapse' (p136). As the civilizational crisis intensifies, the scope for new thinking and new ideas will broaden, pace Friedman.

However unlike Friedman, Eisenstein's proposals advocate the redistribution of wealth and a more egalitarian society, rather than continued wealth concentration and inequality. His marco-economic framework for a 'Sacred Economy' has seven pillars, all of which undermine central tenets of neoliberalism. Together, they amount to a wholescale social and political transformation ushering in the era of what Eisenstein calls a 'new materialism': the conscious design of money and economies to recover and embed the higher values of beauty and connectedness. This is what he means by a 'Sacred Economy'; it overcomes the millenial duality that separates the spiritual from the material realm, and in its reverence for humanity and the earth is indeed 'more materialistic than our current culture' (p426).

Eisenstein juxtaposes his Sacred Economy with our current 'economy of separation':

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This is a review of Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition, Charles Eisenstein (Evolver Editions, Berkeley, California)

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About the Author

Nick Rose is the Coordinator of the Bellingen Community Gardens Association and is the National Coordinator of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance’.

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