Real community requires interdependency

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I babysat my friend’s kid recently. She was stuck and I was free, so I was happy to look after little Elijah for a few hours. We went to the park, we did some painting, he kicked my ass at a game called animal memory; we had fun. Imagine the difference in experience – for my friend, Elijah and myself – if she had put him in paid childcare instead. She would probably have felt a little guilty, leaving him in the care of strangers, for whom Elijah may have been just another face; she also would have undoubtedly felt a little isolated, not having the support of a community she could depend on. It certainly would have cost her money (which she would have had to work extra hours at her job to pay for, meaning yet more need for paid childcare). Elijah wouldn’t have felt as comfortable, spending his time with people with whom he didn’t have an ongoing, trusting relationship, and he wouldn’t have been able to spend the time outdoors, playing in his neighbourhood. And I wouldn’t have spent my morning remembering that three year olds can teach us much about the beauty of the world. What’s more, by entering into that spirit and understanding of mutual dependency, all three of us got to strengthen our relationships to each other – relationships which reinforce and affirm that spirit. Next time I’m in a jam, those relationships will kick in and let me know that I’ve got a friend who will support me.

The conversion of those relationships into paid services – a process which is encroaching into more and more aspects of our lives – leads to the destruction of communities, just as the translation of our natural wealth into ‘resources’ to be exploited leads to the destruction of our ecosystems. To pay for something, to assign a value to it, is to quantify it. It becomes just another number, its uniqueness and relationships and interdependence with all other things swept aside. It is not a five hundred year old tree, provider of food, shade, shelter and soil structure, but £10,000 worth of wood products; she is not a person needing care, with her own hopes, dreams, desires, sorrows, joys and circumstances, she is a ‘client’, or ‘service user’ – costing the taxpayer £30,000 a year. We do not see things for what they are, we see them for what they’re financially worth. Price tags blind us to real worth. In seeing childcare only in terms of money, we lose a wonderful chance to learn from, support and nourish each other; in seeing a forest only in terms of money, we will eventually lose the ability to live on this planet – and prevent countless others from doing so too.

Charles Eisenstein, in The Ascent of Humanity, sums it up nicely: “We find in our culture a loneliness and hunger for authenticity that may well be unsurpassed in history. We try to ‘build community’, not realising that mere intention is not enough when separation is built into the very social and physical infrastructure of our society. To the extent that this infrastructure is intact in our lives, we will never experience community.”(13) In Sacred Economics he adds that “community is not some add-on to our other needs, not a separate ingredient for happiness along with food, shelter, music, touch, intellectual stimulation, and other forms of physical and spiritual nourishment. Community arises from the meeting of those needs. There is no community possible among a people who do not need each other.” With money, especially in a globalised economy, we certainly do not need each other.

The implications of this stretch further, breaking off sections of what were once community into their own separate markets. Most notably in the realms of art and music our relationships have immeasurably changed, so that in the space of one hundred years the vast majority of us have moved from being participants and creators to being consumers. In Ireland, my native land, in the 1920s, people gathered around each other’s fires every evening and played music. Most people could contribute something – whether a jig on a fiddle or the stamping of their foot – and all involved intrinsically knew and felt the value of creative, communal play.

That was before the advent of the radio, then the television, quickly followed by the tape, the compact disc and the ipod, with a brief appearance by something called a mini-disc if my memory serves me correctly. Each new technological development – itself only made possible through the increasingly larger economies of scale and finer divisions of labour that I talk about later in this chapter – takes away one nugget of creativity and community, until we are left with fifty people in a room absorbed by fifty different pieces of music – none of them creating, and none of them sharing. The same process has infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives, to the point that we are now just consumers of life, and not participants in it.

All this is the result of the monetisation of life. Everything has come to have an intrinsic financial value, so that it can be bought and sold. What we now term ‘economic growth’ is simply the conversion of our natural, social, cultural and spiritual commons into money.(14) Soil, art, music, education, hospitality, health – we are even having debates about the financial value of motherhood and the planet. The commodification of all these things takes away their meaning and their authenticity and they become just another service, to be purchased from any stranger with the qualifications to provide it. How is community possible when everyone is as replaceable as interchangeable cogs in The Machine, and how is it possible not to feel isolated, when everyone you deal with is a stranger?

This is a precarious position to adopt. Money has come to replace community as our primary source of security, and as countries who have suffered financial collapse will attest to, this is no real security.

In contrast to the monetary economy of today, within which most of our relationships are of a purely utilitarian nature, Lewis Hyde(15) and others argue that within the gift economy (a model of economy I will describe in chapter two) the economic is merely a subset of the social, whose primary goal is to strengthen relationships and connect us to each other, as opposed to profiteering from one another. Ran Prieur has said that in many tribes “purely utilitarian relationships were forbidden”,(16) which juxtaposes itself to the monetary economy we’ve developed today, where we’re told we shouldn’t mix business with pleasure (surely one of the most absurd pieces of ‘wisdom’ we’ve ever invented). What a horrid way to live, where what we do everyday isn’t brimming with pleasure and laced with the people we love to spend our time with. The result is a world where all our economic activity is impersonal and all of our so-called community is based on superficiality without any real interdependency.

In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber makes a further important point when he notes that by paying off your debts immediately (which is what money, in its more exact forms, allows us to do) we can perceive ourselves as having no further obligations to the other person. We have settled our debt with them, and therefore can in all good conscience sever that relationship, given the moral framework we live within. He uses an example from Margaret Atwood’s book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth,(17) detailing the curious case of a nature writer called Ernest Thompson Seton, who on his twenty first birthday received a bill from his father for every expense connected to Ernest’s childhood, “including the fee charged by the doctor for delivering him”. As Graeber points out, to most of us this behaviour “seems monstrous, inhuman”.

But young Seton paid his father the bill, and never spoke to him again. Graeber adds that “this is precisely why the presentation of [the] bill seems so outrageous. Squaring accounts means that the two parties have the ability to walk away from each other. By presenting it, his father suggested he’d just as soon have nothing further to do with him.”(18) I would suggest that by simply paying it, Seton junior was expressing exactly the same sentiment. Money allowed twenty one years of emotional connection and history to be wiped out with the handing over of some cold, hard cash.

Even to those within our money-driven culture, a son paying off such a debt to his father seems absurd; yet in other connection-driven cultures, paying off your debts to those in your wider community is equally absurd, and can only serve to diminish connection and the collective sense of interdependency. By asking for a debt to be paid, and then paying it, the relationship can be considered over.

There are other points to be made here. When you have money, it doesn’t matter whether you act like a cretin every day, especially if you derive your income from outside the community you live in. The cashier at the supermarket will still sell you your food, as they probably won’t know your name let alone how kind (or otherwise) you are. Your reputation is no longer your currency. Not that I am suggesting reputation being currency is the ideal to strive for, but there has to be some social merit in everyone taking responsibility for their character – something which feels like a million miles from where we are today.

To illustrate this last point in real life, I’ll share a story with you, the video of which went viral on Sina Weibo, a Chinese hybrid of Facebook and Twitter. A little two year old girl, named Yueyue, got hit by a car. The driver drove over her with the front wheel, stopped briefly, and then continued driving, going over her again with the back wheel, crushing her body. Over the coming seven minutes, over a dozen people walked by her, looked at her, and walked on. Many cars and motorbikes drove past, some of them swerving around her broken little body – one of them even drove over here again, crushing her further. After seven minutes, someone finally dragged her off the road and got her help. A week later she died. When some of the people who came onto the scene were questioned about it later, they claimed that the reason they didn’t dare help was (citing a similar incident in 2006) because they risked getting sued by the person whose life they would have been trying to save, which could in turn push their own family into poverty.

This is a logical consequence of a society based on money and competition, and in hindsight such consequences were inevitable from its inception. In a society based on a gift economy, in which your character and your actions are intimately linked with your livelihood, such a depressing tale couldn’t even be imagined.