Money and Social Transformation

By John Bloom

Untitled painting by the author, John Bloom

Money gets us what we want when we want it, if we have it. Its power seems unquestionable, dominating, and to a degree, subject to the laws of physics. It can move at the speed of electrons and in the form of waves. Cell phone technology seems destined to eliminate the friction from its transactional pathways. The economic value created through these energy fields, which we measure in money, has been compromised by the desire to accumulate. In the stories we tell about money, net worth or wealth is a metric of success that fails to indicate money’s ethical basis — one that ignores the process of how the accumulation happened and what it produced along the way. Storing money has trumped using it as an end in itself, and wealth accrues to the individual without regard to the commonwealth.

It seems absurd to accept as valid the idea of accumulating that which is inherently circulatory in nature: currency. But money, like physics, is subject to the dominant materialist world view. Despite this, a different view is emerging. Just as physicists push the boundaries of science to the metaphysical, so do we need to reframe the boundaries of economic life to include the values of spirit. Just as the stories of good that wealth has done tend to be told in the warmth of human interest and responsibility, we need a new economic story that invites and assumes the presence of our spirit, our capacity for ethical action, in our work with money and with each other — as individuals, as groups, as organizations, as communities.

I have been struggling to understand the state of ethical standards played out by those who apparently created financial instruments designed to fail, sold them to clients who bought them in good faith, then “won” big bets on the instruments failing through derivatives and hedging. Only a market economy that operates devoid of human values other than winning and greed could produce such an endeavor. This is only one of many such examples from current financial practices frequently in the news and in our lives. One good result of the unfolding saga of financial misdealings is an awakening sense that there is something wrong in the system, something deeper and more flawed than policy, something so off human equilibrium that it surfaces as flagrant inequity.

At RSF Social Finance, the way we describe the current condition of mainstream finance is complex, opaque, anonymous, and based on short-term outcomes.  As antidote, we strive for all financial transactions to be direct, transparent, personal, and based on long-term relationships. This is more than just a complementary formulation; it is an approach to healing. It also represents a set of intentions that are the basis of the new economic story and a renewed ethic of social transformation.

One of the aspects of Rudolf Steiner’s work that inspires RSF is his framing of economic thinking in a broader social context that is as transformative as it is challenging to grasp. He developed this approach in response to the self-interested, competitive, and nationalistic forces that gave rise to World War I. In 1922, he proposed that all economics needed to be reconsidered as one world economy, and that political boundaries were irrelevant to the flow of economic life. He presaged the recognition of ecological limits and the altruistic notion that economic activity in any one place affects and is affected by the rest of the world. This is an imagination of circulation rather than accumulation. His version of a world economy was the complete opposite of how corporate “globalization” colonizes the local.

Steiner’s imagination of society, sometimes referred to as threefold commonwealth, divided all social life into three sectors: cultural-spiritual, rights, and economic.  Steiner’s insight and innovation was to say that if the three ideals of the French Revolution — liberty, equality, and fraternity — were each rightfully applied to the appropriate sectors, social life would find its equilibrium, its life-affirming essence, not through conflict, but rather through a new kind of engaged conscious citizenship. Freedom was the guiding principle for the cultural-spiritual; equality that for rights; brotherhood (what we call interdependence or mutuality) for economics. This is a basic framework that has enormous implications for how we practice our daily lives and organize society – particularly in the realm of money. But how does one develop a sense for one’s economic self operating interdependently at the same time as one’s spirit self works in freedom? How can we see each other as equals in forming agreements and at the same moment see each other as not necessarily equal in the realm of thinking (spirit)? This takes discipline, attention, and forgiveness. Steiner was always encouraging self-development, deepened self-awareness, and interest and understanding for each other. Understanding who we are as individuals, and how we create our agreements to work together to help others thrive, is one way to put threefolding into practice.

For better or worse, money is my mirror. As I reflect on my relationship to and uses of it, I see my values (spiritual-cultural) practiced or not, the agreements I have made as between equals or not (rights), and whether I have actually added value to the economy by meeting others’ real needs (economic). Through this reflective process I can own my thoughts and actions and work to change myself. This I am free to do. I am not free to change somebody else. I also participate in our financial system and it is therefore also a part of me — like it or not. It is also reasonable to think that whatever change I can make for myself does actually change the financial system, even if the rules, laws, policies, and those seeking to control them for private benefit make it seem an overwhelming challenge. But, this is part of the new economic story.

What if we practice direct, transparent, personal financial transactions as a way of reestablishing equilibrium in social life, including all three sectors? What if we understood that direct means that we remove layers of intermediation in our economic life and actually bring producers, consumers and distributors together in association to set price and determine best use of natural resources? What if we understood transparency as a process that means all parties to the transactions are operating in full and honest disclosure and thus feel equal in the agreement process? What if our transactions were done in a spirit of interest in and a sense of long-term responsibility for each other? In doing so, might we not transform the way we work with money and bring about social transformation at the same time?

The inquiry here is purposeful beyond a series of leading questions. It is also an invitation to and proposal for a process that is at the heart of the new economic story. The old one has in many ways already failed us by the ecological disasters left in its wake and for want of speaking to our deepest humanity. The new one, threefold in nature, speaks to our longing for meaning, connection, and community in a way that is direct, transparent, and personal — and one that welcomes the presence and practice of spiritual values.

John Bloom is the Director of Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance. If you enjoyed this post, look for John’s book, The Genius of Money, on steinerbooks.org.

One good result of the unfolding saga of financial misdealings is an awakening sense that there is something wrong in the system, something deeper and more flawed than policy, something so off human equilibrium that it surfaces as flagrant inequity…

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