I read a book recently that had a large impact on the way I look at the circumstantial world. I highly recommend it: it's called Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein. I have always assumed that no better economic system than capitalism has been invented, and so we are stuck with a world that has greed and self-centeredness embedded in the very foundation of society. Reading Sacred Economy disabused me: there is another way to do it, I learned--a way that is beautiful, harmonious, and good. I'm not qualified to explain this other way here--I'll leave Charles to do that--but I want to say a word or two about one of the principles involved. Reading the book it was clear to me that we need to eradicate the inherent inequality of our society.
Our society is terribly striated, of course. Our economic system sifts us out so that some people are on top, some on bottom, and most graded in the middle according to money, looks, skin color, gender, and many other things. Our value is associated with our rank in society, and our rank in society is dependent upon artificial, surface-level things that for the most part we are not responsible for. Two people with the same work ethic, for example, will end up in a different social grade dependent upon how they were raised and the opportunities they were given (because of race, geography, etc.). The system causes us to lose touch with the fact (from my point of view) that we are all equally valuable as humans, and that a just society would treat everyone well.
The utopia that I envision would include a society in which everyone is the same in terms of value, but with the understanding that we all have different roles to play. Somebody needs to build the roads, somebody needs to treat the sick and dying, somebody needs to formulate the laws.... In this utopia one role does not make a person more valuable inherently than another role. We've each been given unique gifts as a part of our natural endowment, and these gifts will express in unique ways if allowed to. We all have the inherent value our gifts provide; one set of gifts is different from another, but not better. It would be a much happier world if we could all see each other in this way.
We are far from living in this utopia, of course. We live in a world in which our gifts are ranked, and we are judged by the gifts that we have. Take for example the value we put on manual labor. I adore manual labor, and I always have. I wouldn't work full-time in an office for anything in the world. I see working with my body as natural to me, good, and healthy, and I've always chosen it when I've had the power to do so. And yet, our society does not value physical labor, or at least it does not reward work that creates the material things we need in the same degree as it rewards work that creates wealth. The guy with a shovel makes just a fraction of what the guy in a suit makes who employs the guy with the shovel. This to me seems patently unfair. We are all using our gifts according to the opportunities we've been given--we are all doing the same process, in other words; how is it right, then, that some can live better than others, and that some have more status than others? A friend of mine went to Mexico recently and saw people living in "houses" made of sticks and discarded plastic next to a hotel that rented rooms for $1500 a night. How is this possible?
I imagine a world in which a mechanic who fixes your car has the same standard of living as a mechanic (called a "surgeon") who fixes your heart. Each person would do what they felt called to do to contribute to the whole, and everyone would have what they needed to have a good, comfortable life, in a way that works ecologically for the planet. We would all live in comfort and convenience, but not in excess. I feel certain that we would all be happier that way--even the surgeon. We would need to organize things such that everything gets done, of course, and we'd probably need to take turns doing the chores that nobody wants to do, but I'm sure we could figure out how to make it all work if we wanted to. This same friend on his Mexico trip observed that the rich young bucks and the supermodels staying in the hotel seemed dissatisfied, and they appeared to be unhappy, walking around impatiently with scowls on their faces, while the poor folks were cheerful and delighted to lend him a hand. Isn't that interesting? The reason, I project, is that the poor people are not able to indulge the conditioned belief, a pillar of capitalism, that the more stuff you have the happier you are. These people do not have the stuff, can't have the stuff, and so are freed up to just be happy with what they have.
I often hear myself say that our society is conditioned mind made manifest: it is an exact external replica of the conditioned processes that we all endure within our own minds. The is the reason why a person who follows the assumptions of society and lives according to its precepts inevitably suffers from want and deprivation--not of material things, perhaps, but of the much deeper and more important emotional and spiritual need we all have for connection with ourselves, with Life, and with other people. We are being used by conditioned mind through the structures and institutions we all obey as good citizens. In this way conditioned mind lives and thrives off of our life force.
It seems to me that we are still in the early stages of our development as humans. The sacred economy that Eisenstein outlines is breathtakingly beautiful, and I believe it could work, but we seem to be far from the maturity required to make it happen. We are too identified with conditioned mind, and all the selfish horror that comes with that. So what do we do until the time of the utopia? I would say that we do the best we can with the gifts we have.
There is going to be financial and other forms of inequality for the foreseeable future, clearly. That fact needs to be accepted as a first step, so we can live with it and work within it. As we do, however, I think there is a tremendous amount that can be done on a process level to steer us towards the maturity we need. For example, it would make a great difference if we work to let go of our nearly universal belief in the reality of inequality; we need to assume equality when dealing with people, and to act from that place. This would go a long way to healing the suffering that comes from the basic unfairness of our economic system. And there is much work to do to reform the system from the inside-out.
I talked the other day with a relatively young man (early thirties) who had just come in to a ton of money. I said that I was afraid for him. He is a beautiful, good human, and I felt concerned that the power the money gives him will corrupt him and will undermine the work he's doing to be the best person he can be in this world. That's the trouble with excess money: we can use it to avoid problems that need to be solved using only our courage and our wits. I told him I worried he would cease to grow. As we talked, however, a different possibility arose, that the money itself presented a growthful challenge to him. If he uses the money to feed his ego then he will become like others I've seen who are empty inside, despairing unconsciously for the loss of their authentic nature, but attached, even addicted to the cause of their misery. If he uses the money to do something good, however, to contribute something needed to society, in that case it would demand he take responsibility for Life on a level his life has not asked for before now. The money is not the trouble, really: the trouble if trouble comes will arise from the use of the money, from the state of mind and heart of my friend as he engages with this challenge that Life has put in front of him.
I would imagine that nearly everyone who reads this post is in a position of privilege, and I include myself in this. Given that our economic system is what it is, I don't see anything wrong with that. I feel we are called, however, to use our privilege well. Let us not be blind to the responsibility our privilege places upon us. Let's not lose sight of the big picture--that we are all as nothing in the vastness of the universe, that we will all be dead and forgotten before we know it--and remember that our first effort in this life must be to care for the human that we are, and to care for others as best we can. The more conscious we are of our equal place in the limitless reaches of space and time, the more skillfully we may use the gifts we've been given, and the roles we are here to play.