What Do We Do at the End of Free Range Capital?
May 14 2012
by John Bloom
I remember singing “Home, Home on the Range” in an endless loop when I was young and wandering through the woods, probably a vestige of hearing Gene Autry crooning. The song’s portrayal of roaming buffalo, deer and antelope playing struck an imaginative chord—it was something about the free spirit, the rare occurrence of a discouraging word and the forever-cloudless sky that felt so right. It certainly suited my privileged youth. I not only bought the myth, I got it for a song! I must have been too young to notice that for all the manifest destiny of the open west—the only buffalo or antelope I ever saw were at the zoo—the economic and political manifestation of that destiny had nearly destroyed the First People and succeeded in partitioning the American landscape into fenced real estate, privately and governmentally owned. This was nature with its integrated system disintegrated, turned into commodities to be appraised, bought and sold according to the unnatural law of the marketplace. I now realize the song, the state song of Kansas, was propaganda even when it was first written in 1876. Its fantasy and jingle-like quality produced in me (and I assume in others) a lulling facade for the powerful, moneyed, and privileged who made the rules, who claimed, fenced, subdivided, and ravaged the land of America for its own gain.
Post partitioning, the wild animals that had roamed, grazed, and preyed on the range, were no longer free. So it was for the indigenous peoples who knew how to live within the reciprocal processes and principles they discerned from nature and had hunted buffalo respectfully for their mutual subsistence. They saw the military’s strategy in killing off the buffalo, but I am sure could not fathom the power of opportunistic market-driven frenzy that slaughtered upwards of six million animals, many of them just left to rot when the bottom fell out of the market for hides and meat. This seems to be in retrospect a foreshadowing of the evolution of mortgage lending, the real estate market, and now the scourge of foreclosures.
Nature is a continually evolving flow of interrelationships to which each aspect of nature contributes its particularity. In this flow, nature is like a sufficiency economy free of any market forces, one in which the currency is the vitality of growth and decay, aging and renewal, of altruistic service to other aspects.
In contrast, the paradigm of economic life operating as a marketplace, where everything can be commoditized and sold at a price, is a deeply flawed one. It assumes an endless supply of natural resources; and, it is deeply rooted in the view of ownership in which the rights of the individual trump those of the community. This paradigm is sustained by three activities: fostering the myth of economic self-interest, placing profit above ecological consequence, and accumulating capital as a primary driver toward political and cultural power. In this context money is removed from its primary function of accountancy, as a measure of the flow of value, to that of a commodity to be bought, sold and speculated with, and disconnected from any direct economic impact.
The age of free-range capital is over; not only have people, animals, and natural resources fallen to the great partitioning, but so has capital. How else can so much be under the control of so few? And we cannot really separate ourselves from the reigning paradigm unless we can find a way to create a new ethical and altruistic basis or framework from which to operate. This will require personal transformation along with the transformation of communities and the economic systems that sustain them, both locally and regionally. A first step, and this is a personal practice, is to realize just how much each of us benefits from and contributes to the commodification of modern life. If our life revolves around the marketplace of commodities, even ones we feel good about, then we have missed the entire point of our purpose for being on earth, which flows out of exercising dominion rather than domination and understanding our gifts and resources so that in serving others we may be served.
If we want to de-partition capital and return it to a measured flow that supports life and community, then the right of ownership of capital needs to transition to a practice of stewardship of capital, one that recognizes that the source of capital resides in both nature and human nature—work on the earth and the application of intelligence to that work. If we fail to invest in the renewal of both the earth and culture, then we will fail to redeem the real value of capital, and we will be left with nothing but virtual value. A living and livable system is one that recognizes and thrives on reciprocity and interdependence, as the First People knew and practiced. If we can move our economic life in this redemptive direction, a sense of levity, of uplift, may surface as counter-force to the apparent gravity of our financial transactions and the challenge of living in the material world.
I think back to my youth and the times spent mostly humming (I only knew one verse and the chorus) “Home, Home on the Range.” I did not really grasp that the song is a paean to a vanquished people and land. The world looked and felt different when I was young. It’s not just my age. Money has changed. Commerce has changed. How power works has changed. And it no longer works to not ask the hard questions: Whose rules? Whose agenda? Whose manifest? Whose destiny? And, then, build real interdependent community from there.
John Bloom is Senior Director, Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.