The Dharma of Wealth
In a sacred economy, investment has a meaning nearly opposite of what it means today. Today, investing is what people do to preserve or increase their wealth. In a sacred economy, it is what we do to share our wealth. Excess wealth, whether inherited from family or from an earlier time in one’s own life, is a dharma, a call to service. To squander it on baubles, to give it away senselessly, or to devote oneself to its increase are all ways of refusing that call. We live in a world of fundamental abundance that we have, through our beliefs and habits, rendered artificially poor. At the most basic level, sacred investing is simply the intentional channeling of abundance toward a creative purpose. This is the kind of investment that is aligned with a future economy in which status comes from giving, not having, and security comes not from accumulation, but from being a nexus of flow. It begins with the meeting of needs and unfolds into the creation of beauty.
“Investment” means to clothe, as in to take naked money and put it into new vestments, something real in the physical or social realm. Money is naked human potential—creative energy that has not yet been “clothed” with material or social constructions. Right investment is to array money in sacred vestments: to use it to create, protect, and sustain the things that are becoming sacred to us today. These are the same things that will form the backbone of tomorrow’s economy. Right investment is therefore practice for the coming world, both psychological practice and practical preparation. It accustoms one to the new mentality of wealth—finding channels for productive giving—and it creates and strengthens those channels, which might persist even when the present money system collapses. Money as we know it might disappear, but the relationships of gratitude and obligation will remain.
Just as financial investments won’t survive economic collapse, so also does the end of life mean the end of all our accumulations. At that moment, what will give you joy? The memory of all you have given. Upon death, we take with us only what we have given. As in a gift culture, that is what our wealth will be. By giving, we lay up treasures in heaven. When we merge with the All, we receive that which we gave to all.
Robbing Peter to Pay Paul
Even before an economy realizing the core principles of the gift crystallizes, we can begin living it right now. This is far more radical than “socially conscious investing” or “ethical investing.” While these ideas are steps in the right direction, they harbor an internal contradiction. For by seeking a positive financial return, they perpetuate the conversion of the world into money.
The venture capitalist identifies high-growth opportunities and provides the money to bring them to fruition. In a steady-state or degrowth economy, this model is no longer appropriate—hence the turn toward a different investment goal: the restoration, and not the more efficient exploitation, of the natural and social commons. I am talking about investing, not earning. It is one thing to receive rewards for doing good work in the world; it is quite another to add money to money by virtue of having money. For example, it would be fine for a corporation to charge enough to keep the business viable, to pay employees well, and to finance expansion, research, and so forth. But beyond that, corporations must earn an additional amount that goes out to investors in the form of interest payments or dividends. Where does this additional amount come from? From the same place all money today comes from: interest-bearing debt and the conversion of the world into money.
So if you really want to contribute to the good of the world, don’t ask for a return on your investment. Don’t try to give and take at the same time. If you want to take (and you might have good reasons for doing so), then take, but don’t pretend you are giving. If interest-generating investments contribute to the despoliation of the natural and social commons, then obviously we should not invest money at interest. The same goes for any investment that drives the expansion of the realm of goods and services. As socially conscious investors, you don’t want to contribute to the monetization of life and nature. There is no escape from this principle.
I am not advocating an age of altruism in which we forgo personal benefit for the common good. I foresee, rather, a fusion of personal benefit and common good. For example, when I give money to people in my community, I create feelings of gratitude that might motivate a return gift to me or an onward gift to someone else. Either way, I have strengthened the community that sustains me. When we are embedded in a gift community, we naturally direct our gratitude not only toward the proximate giver but toward the community as a whole, and we take care of its neediest members (gifts seek needs).
If we use today’s money to create a large enough reservoir of gratitude, then our society can withstand practically anything. So badly have we damaged planet and spirit that it will require a full outpouring of all our gifts to heal it. The outpouring of gifts comes from gratitude. Therefore, the best investment you can make with your money is to generate gratitude. It doesn’t matter if the gratitude recognizes you as the giver. Ultimately, the proper object of gratitude is the Giver of all our own gifts, of our world, of our lives.
To get ready for the gift economy, and to live today in its spirit, instead of investing money with the purpose of making more of it, we shift the focus of investment toward using accumulated money as a gift from the old world to the new, a gift from the ancestors to the future. It is analogous to the gifts of life, of mother’s milk, of food and sensory stimulation and all the things that build us into adults, which we receive in order that we may enter adulthood and give onward of these gifts. The question, then, is how to use money in the consciousness of a gift.
Old Accumulations to New Purposes
The world sits on top of a huge pile of wealth, the end product of ten thousand years of culture and technology. We have a mighty industrial infrastructure; we have roads and airplanes; we have a vast apparatus already in existence that, for centuries, has been devoted toward the expansion of the human realm and the conquest of the natural. The time has come to turn the tools of separation, dominance, and control toward the purpose of reunion, the healing of the world. Who knows to what purposes we will turn the technologies of profit? When humanity is no longer under compulsion to grow its realm, we will turn our collective ingenuity and the amassed knowledge, information, and technology of the ages toward ecology, connectedness, and healing.
Whether it is the application of accumulated technology or accumulated money, we want to be sure that we are not using it in the old mode: as a tool to achieve more separation from nature or more financial wealth. The dynamics of usury-money are addiction dynamics, requiring an ever-greater dose (of the commons) to maintain normality, converting more and more of the basis of well-being into money for a fix. So too it is with our politicians’ efforts to prolong the age of growth. If you are an investor, it is time to shift your focus entirely to the creation of connections, the generation of gratitude, and the reclamation and protection of the commonwealth. The time for the mind-set of wealth preservation is over.
That is why I suggest the concept of using money to destroy money. By this I mean to use money to restore and protect the natural, social, cultural, and spiritual commons from which it was originally created. Thanks to the efforts of generations of do-gooders, we still have a portion of our divine bequest. There is still goodness in the soil; there are still healthy forests here and there; there are still fish in some parts of the ocean; there are still people and cultures that haven’t completely sold off their health and creativity. This remaining natural, social, and spiritual capital is what will carry us through the transition and form the basis to heal the world.
The same principles that apply to right investing apply also to right livelihood; indeed, right livelihood and right investment are two sides of the same coin. If right investing uses money as gift to support the creation of a more beautiful world, then right livelihood accepts that gift as it does that work. Traditional employment receives money for helping expand the monetized realm. We find that in order to earn money, we must participate in the conversion of the good, the true, and the beautiful into money. That is because of the money system—credit ultimately goes to those who can most effectively create new goods and services (or take it from those who create them).
Humanity possesses vast stores of wealth in many forms, the accumulation of centuries of exploitation, that can now be turned to other purposes, for example to preserve and restore natural, social, cultural, and spiritual capital. Doing this won’t create more money; therefore whoever is paying for it is ultimately giving a gift. In other words, the key to “right livelihood” is to live off of gifts. These can come in subtle forms. For example, say you sell fair-trade products. When someone buys one, at several multiples the cost of a functionally equivalent sweatshop product, the cost difference is essentially a gift. They didn’t have to pay that much. The same is true if your work is to install solar water heaters or build shelters for the homeless. Many traditional social service jobs, like social work, teaching, and so on, partake in the energy of the gift as long as they don’t contribute to the more efficient operation of the earth-devouring machine. The source of the money could be a buyer, a foundation, or even the government. What makes it a gift is the motive—that it does not aim to get the cheapest price or generate even more money in return.
We are born into gratitude, born into the need and the desire to give. Trust that it is not your true desire to comply with the conversion of the world into money. Trust that you want to do beautiful things with your life.
Adapted from Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition by Charles Eisenstein.