Let’s put money in its place
Yes, money talks, but in a language that abuses Mother Earth and its inhabitants, says Suma Varughese
Now that the coronavirus is showing us in stark reality how very damaging our materialistic and consumerist-oriented economy has been to Nature, maybe the big guns—the politicians, the corporates, the builders, and the power brokers—will begin to open up their minds to the possibility that there are other ways to live life.
I have always nurtured the supposition that Economics was a bogus science. After all, before it came into being (which was considered to be sometime in the 18th Century when Scottish thinker Adam Smith emerged with his seminal book, The Creation of Wealth), people were still buying and selling, making money, and giving money in exchange for goods. So what changed?
What changed was that instead of leaving the economic activity to regulate itself, the economists decided to regulate it. And the result has only been disastrous. Because of the incredible complexity of our systems and their specialisation, it is almost impossible for most of us to uncover the first principles of Economics. However, one person, John Ruskin, wrote a penetrating critique of what was then called Political Economy in his book Unto This Last.
What Ruskin points out with such incredible clarity—that it makes one wonder why others did not see this—is that nothing in The Creation of Wealth makes sense because it is operating from the assumption that man does not have a soul and that greed and self-interest are his only guiding factors. Ruskin sardonically compares that supposition to the possibility that the human body does not have a skeleton. He says, “It might be shown, on the supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes or stretch them into cables.” But would these ideas have any practical purpose considering that the human body has a skeleton, just as the human being has a soul? Indeed, spiritual folk are fond of saying that human beings are souls having a human experience and not bodies having a soul.
Just think about this for a while. Does this not make enormous sense? Are all of us only motivated by the need to make money in determining our livelihoods and how we practise them? Yes, undoubtedly, many may be, but can it be said for all of us? Speaking for myself, I would say that in all my working life, I have never been motivated by money. And nor did I make much of it. After five years as editor of Society magazine, I left it because I did not want to promote upward mobility. I could clearly see that there was a massive contradiction between the capitalist notion of infinite growth and the reality of a finite planet. That is when I quit it and joined Life Positive magazine, even while it was on the drawing board. I threw away a stable income, a prestigious and powerful job, and considerable fame in order to make the switch. What would Adam Smith make of this, I wonder? Nor am I alone. I know hundreds of people who have left behind unsatisfying but lucrative jobs to do what their souls wanted them to do.
Higher motivations to live by
I had a friend who was fond of saying loftily, “Give peanuts and all you will get are monkeys.” I was often tempted to say that you may also get some monks! I remember Arundhati Roy once writing that she had a healthy disrespect for money (I may have paraphrased her but the meaning was clear. Money was not a god in her eyes). I so resonated with her. What’s so great about money? I would do nothing just for money. In the early days of being in Life Positive, money was scarce, because I had also simultaneously decided to buy a flat, and my EMIs ate up half my income. All luxuries and most necessities were off the table save one. I decided I would never write about anything save spiritual matters. I remember a few corporates approaching me with lucrative assignments. I had absolutely no problem turning them down. Not being controlled by money is a great freedom. Perhaps the greatest of freedoms. You get to choose what you will do and what you will not do. You get to decide how much you will do and how much you will not do. You get to decide who you will work for and who you will not.
I agree that I was lucky. I did not marry and therefore did not have a brood of kids for whom I needed to earn. I just had a super low-maintenance mother to look after. That enabled me to make the choices I did. Nevertheless, as we go into a post-corona world, my belief is that more and more will be unshackling from jobs that suit neither their souls nor the environment. And Adam Smith be damned!
Ethics over money
Ruskin also makes another great point. He argues sharply that just because the interests of two parties are opposed, it does not follow that they will be antagonistic with each other, as Economics would have us believe is the inevitable relationship between employer and employee. He says, “If there is only a crust of bread in the house, and mother and children are starving, their interests are not the same. If the mother eats it, the children want it; if the children eat it, the mother must go hungry to her work. Yet, it does not necessarily follow that there will be ‘antagonism’ between them, that they will fight for the crust, and that the mother, being the strongest, will get it and eat it.”
What runs through all of Ruskin’s arguments is that unless our relationship with money is based on a moral or ethical foundation, we can only bring evil upon ourselves and our world. His prediction has been borne out in a world of runaway capitalism, where the amoral motive of profit has dictated the naked exploitation of Nature, now dubbed resources, and of human beings, now dubbed labour. This concept has single-handedly wreaked havoc on our world today.
The fact is, as Ruskin and all right-thinking people have always maintained, we live in an ethical Universe. Only thinking, speaking, and doing what is right can be in our long-term interests. Only in the short-term can amoral concepts survive. And in the history of our Planet, the short term is over. We are now reaping the ‘rewards’ of prioritising money over people. Of prioritising money and what money can buy over clean water, soil, and air. Of prioritising money over the viability of our planet and ourselves. For too long, we have thrown away the gold in favour of the dross. The miasma of greed in which we are presently submerged fails to show us how self-destructive our behaviour is.
I think there is only one thing that can awaken us. And that is the fate of our children. And our children’s children. What kind of a world are we leaving for them? Should we not clean up our mess? Should we sacrifice their lives at the altar of more and more? The choices are so stark it is downright frightening. For the sake of our children, let’s put money in its place!
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