Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Articles of Faith

Above is a twenty dollar bill from my pocket.  I can exchange it for goods and services up to twenty dollars’ worth.  But what is it literally?  It is a piece of paper with engraved printing.  That is all.  The most powerful nation in history says that this piece of engraved paper is worth twenty dollars.   The “full faith and credit of the United States” up to twenty dollars is represented by this piece of paper.  Its value is ultimately arbitrary.

What about gold?  Surely that is worth something absolute and certain.  Imagine if we found a solid gold asteroid out there in space, and gold suddenly became as abundant as tin, would it still be valuable?  There are other metals that are even more rare than gold, rhodium, iridium, ruthenium, tellurium, etc.   Gold is a rare bright shiny yellow metal that has centuries’ worth of accumulated mystique around it.  But mystique can vanish with ubiquity.  Aluminum was once more valuable than gold.  The top of the Washington monument is a pyramidion of 100 ounces of pure aluminum.  When a more effective method of extracting and refining the metal was invented in 1886, the value of aluminum dropped permanently.  There’s no reason to assume that something similar can’t happen to gold.  The value we assign to gold is as arbitrary as the value we assign to a piece of printed paper.

Currency is an act of faith.  The entire modern economy with all of the cultural and legal constructs around it is built on faith.  So much of the way we look at and think about life is predicated on faith in currency.

What happens when that faith is called into question?

There is a man who has done exactly that.  Daniel Suelo in 2000 made it his life’s mission to live without money.  He does not make any, nor will he take any.  He lives in a cave outside of Moab, Utah.  He hunts and gathers wild foods, and he scavenges the leavings of modern society.  He completely rejects currency and all the transactional and actuarial assumptions that come with it.  He believes in practicing an economy of “freely give, freely receive.”  He will not even accept barter.  He does keep a blog site.
He is not a survivalist or some kind of “up by your own boot-straps” type.  He believes that we are all interdependent.  He wants to propose a radically different way of dealing with each other that is not transactional or actuarial.
His inspiration is religious.  His reasoning is a mixture of Christianity, Buddhism, and Indigenous American religion.  He takes seriously the selflessness and anti-materialism in all religion.  

Daniel Suelo in his cave near Moab, Utah

Daniel Suelo was born Daniel James Shellabarger in Arvada, Colorado in 1961.  His parents were fundamentalist Christians.  He left that faith when he went to college.  Shortly after college, he came out as a gay man.  He became deeply influenced by the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism on a trip to India, and by the examples of wandering Hindu sadhus and Buddhist monks.  He decided to live entirely without money completely outside the commercial economy in the fall of 2000. 

Do I want to follow this man’s example or suggest that we all do likewise and live in caves?  Certainly not.  I see that this man spends all of his time getting by from day to day, and I realize why civilization was invented in the first place.  Besides, I have always said, and I still say, that I am not an anarchist.  Daniel Suelo clearly is.  It’s hard to imagine someone more outside modern society than he, unless he moves to the Antarctic, cuts off all communication, and lives off fish and penguin eggs for the rest of his life.
However, I do think that some of the most creative and boldest thinking about how we humans get along with each other comes out of anarchist circles these days.  Daniel Suelo invites us to think about the whole business of value in a world that doesn’t really believe in the possibility of intrinsic value.  Most bankers and hedge fund managers would agree with Karl Marx, that the only real values are use and exchange.  Suelo rejects all of that and insists that we think anew about what is really valuable to us.

So much of what we consider to be the foundations of civilized life turns out to be disturbingly vulnerable and ephemeral.

The whole power of the law rests upon our consent to live by it.  When we withdraw that consent, then all the force in the world can’t restore the law’s authority.  The only law in nature is that of succeed or fail, survive or perish.  There is no demonstrably transcendent law outside of ourselves and our communities.

As Dr. Jacob Bronowski demonstrated so ably in a previous post, there is no absolute knowledge.  Our knowledge is finite.  We can only be more or less certain.

We are creatures of the surface of a small planet with gravity and an atmosphere.  Space exploration demonstrates that most of the rest of the universe is impossible for us to live in.  Our physical structure and form are shaped by gravity and air pressure.  We can survive only in a narrow range of optimum temperature.  In the vacuum of space, we would disintegrate.  We are creatures tied to a specific place, and bound to a moment in time.  Our lives are but the merest flickers in the eons of universal time. 

That small time and place that we dwell in with each other is what we are all ultimately responsible for.


Wilfried said...

In the vein of money, you might want to listen to this:


MarkBrunson said...

St. Francis did the same. Let's hope Suelo's doesn't get sterilized for mass consumption.