I don’t miss the Soviet era, and God forbid I’d ever wish it resurrected now. Still, there’s two or three things I do recall being valued then, but not these days, sadly enough. Back then, for instance, money couldn’t buy everything.
I grew up in a society where connections mattered far more than money and life had entire layers where money didn’t even come into the picture. We used to bang out songs, welcome guests, dig potatoes, make homebrew, obtain rationed goods through someone we knew, and babysit for the neighbors. We knew the people living around us, because we needed them – sometimes for gain, sometimes for love. We lived in a community, not a society.
It’s all different now. Goods have replaced needs, and services have replaced relationships. The meaning of life, for individuals and the nation alike, lies in GDP growth: in other words, growing the money supply. As long as it grows, life gets better – or so they say. Yet it grows like a virus, by taking over things and activities that used to be free: public goods, gifts, helping.
Everything that used to be the world of personal relationships is becoming a world of monetary relationships. We monetize emotions: buying comedies to make us laugh and dramas to make us cry. We monetize food preparation rituals: buying a restaurant meal or frozen food for the microwave. We don’t have time. Where’s it gone? It’s been monetized. Time is money. I work so I can have money, so I can buy pizza, so I can eat fast, so I can get back to work, so I can buy more pizza, so I can…
Money is gradually crowding out the nonmonetary: things you couldn’t buy or sell before. Why bother asking Grandma to babysit? Just look at what it costs: engaging with her, gratitude, generation gaps – the whole story. It requires investing effort. Much easier to earn enough to get a nanny, and pay her. She’s doesn’t say no, doesn’t talk back, and is under my control: I have power over her through her wages and her residency permit. No need to engage with her. Just give orders, and she obeys. A robot running on money instead of fuel. The children’s upbringing has been monetized. Gifts have been monetized. And why bother explaining anything to them? Download an app to the iPad, and let it explain.
The motto of monetization: “I don’t need you.” Money is anonymous. Sweaters used to be knitted by Grandma; now they’re made someplace in Bangladesh, cheap and nasty. Jelly used to be made by Mom; now there’s rows of identical jars in identical stores, freighted in by someone from somewhere or other. There’s no point in getting close to your neighbor anymore, and community has crumbled. Life’s been outsourced to strangers. I don’t need you.
Monetization replaces values. What’s valued is whatever costs a lot. And vice versa: wherever there’s no money, value withers. How often we say: I can’t afford to be charitable, kind, healthy, or creative. Being an artist means poverty, and volunteering is unfashionable. So you’ve come up with a new kind of cheap renewable energy? If nobody buys it, your idea will die with you and your maxed-out credit card. And who’s going to buy it, as long as all the money’s in oil?
Why do the most interesting startups often pass unnoticed? There’s no money in them. They don’t meet the investor’s two key criteria: scalability and repeatability. These are the two pillars of consumption. Coca-Cola is something people want to drink every day. Coca-Cola can be flogged to the whole world, especially children. Conclusion: there’s money in Coca-Cola. There’s no health, decency, benefit, or ethics – but there is money. We’ll take it.
Like King Midas, monetization turns everything it touches to coins. The animate and the inanimate, the public and the private. No such thing as objects, concepts, or feelings. Just their prices.
We’re living in an unwritten legend that tells us money will let us meet all our needs someday. Well, there’s more and more money, but the mirage keeps receding. The bigger the bank account, the deeper the yawning void in the heart.
Hunger can’t be sated with coins. There’s something wrong with that equation.
Why am I going on at length about this? Because it’s a lesson I’m learning myself. There was a time when I’d buy lots of trendy gear for myself and my wife. I’d bring it home, reinforce the shelves that sagged under the weight of all my stuff, push fully-loaded trolleys through IKEA just about every week. Who knows? If I had countless sums of money today, maybe I’d still be shopping like that. But today I’m pondering what else I can give to other people and the world. Is there anything that’s not for sale?
Whenever we set the table for our friends, there’s a sweet and fleeting sensation of rightness in that. I can’t explain it, but you know what I mean. It’s a feeling you couldn’t buy in any restaurant. Whenever somebody grabs a guitar and starts bleating out a Beatles tune, there’s that feeling again – a feeling you wouldn’t even get at a sponsored corporate event starring Paul McCartney. Whenever we sleep on a rickety sofa, courtesy of our couchsurfer hosts, there’s something bigger again, something you’d never get within the Ritz-Carlton’s velvet walls. I could handle never staying at the Ritz-Carlton again, but no way am I giving up those nights on rickety sofas.
That which is truly valuable to us is not for sale. In his book “Sacred Economics,” author Charles Eisenstein argues that if we want to live a full life again, we could try reducing the presence of money: demonetizing our life.
Try doing something for free more often, for yourself and others. Make something with your own hands instead of buying it; or, if you do buy it, buy only from the maker. Give things away instead of selling them, help someone out at no charge, learn a skill or teach somebody else, re-use something, refurbish it instead of buying a new one.
Relearn to give, as we have been given this life, this air we breathe, and sunlight. Reconnect with the people around you, fill our society with the revitalizing moisture of billions of interdependent connections – like roots in the soil, like mushrooms, or blood vessels in a living body. I need you.