Spirit Rising: Toward a More Just Economy

These Days

Whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
And the dirt
Just to make clear
where they come from.

—Charles Olson

We stand at an important moment in the flow of time, and what matters most now is that those who can, will stand together, not because there has to be agreement or even shared cause, but simply because of the necessity to stand together for the sake of humanity. While the economy may be getting better, for example, it is not getting better for everyone, especially those on the lower end. However, each one of us brings gifts and capacities to the world. When those gifts move in service to others, something new and valuable emerges in the spaces connecting us all—a view of community. I am not the only one thinking in this way. There are a number of ways that this impulse for recognizing the value of each human being is showing up in the world right now. Not without profound precedent.

From the vantage of 2018 we can look back fifty years to painful markers of sea change: The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and June of 1968 saw the first Poor People’s Campaign. This event was an emanation of Dr. King’s economic program which he never lived to implement. 1968 also brought us the Chicago Democratic Convention during which the world became witness to an aspect of the American soul in which war protest was pitted against the power of the state. Violence and non-violence, war and peace, truth and the credibility gap, became part of a moral drama that Dr. King spoke to in his well-known statement from Beyond Vietnam:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

We can also look back one hundred years, to see that in middle Europe, Rudolf Steiner looked at the human devastation and economic chaos resulting from World War I. From this experience he articulated an approach to organizing society that aimed to eliminate the need for violence and control of resources, and at the same time lifted the human being as a valuable and engaged member of political and economic life. His vision, “The Threefold Commonwealth,” was precisely an imagination of a person-oriented society. While he could not have imagined what the sustained conflicts and racism in US society might look like fifty years hence, he knew that something had to change in how we work together as a society, or war and continued human suffering was inevitable. His efforts failed, despite his access to those in power.

But the universal ideals, so essentially human, that Steiner was trying to bring about are also present as archetypes in Martin Luther King’s vision. Steiner was seeking freedom in the cultural sector, equality in rights, and a sense of brotherhood-sisterhood in the economic. King framed it in a different way in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. But, listen to the deeper impulse: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”

Reflection on this historical thread leads me to consider what social and spiritual forces were driven into the shadows at those times, and at the same time what was kindled, even quietly nurtured, that is now calling itself into the world out of the needs of the present? I would say this impulse lives in the current vision of Reverend Dr. William Barber II, leader of Moral Mondays and the reignited Poor People’s Campaign. He is certainly a bearer of that wisdom on behalf of many. In speaking about and writing about the need for a fusion coalition and new Poor People’s Campaign he has said:

Throughout America’s history — from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to labor and civil rights — real social change has come when impacted people have joined hands with allies of good will to stand together against injustice…and that, in the end, love is the greatest power to sustain a fight for what is right.

What becomes visible in this historical thread is the struggle for the human spirit—be it expressed in ethical, moral, philosophical, or religious terms—to enter the world as bearer of peace, justice, and sufficiency for all in the face of a system driven by materialism, greed, racism, and dispassion.

There are many challenges with this emergence, not the least of which is finding the rightful integration of spirit with the economic life. The economy is the embodiment of our material experiences, the physical reality of natural resources, human work, and the capacity for human needs-driven innovation. The economy exists to meet our material needs. It would seem at first that the architecture of spiritual experience—from imagination, inspiration, and intuition—has nothing to do with the architecture of economic life. On one hand we work in the world so that we can serve others’ needs as are ours are met by them, so that, well, so that what? So that we can free ourselves enough to eat, rest, and recreate so that we can work more? Or, so that we can think, imagine, play, and learn to find cultural meaning beyond economic productivity?

No one would doubt that the economic life makes culture possible. But what if you were not welcome or treated fairly in economic life? Does that engender a compromised and unfree culture? Yes. Does it honor your dignity? No. If we do receive some compensation to make the work we do possible, what do we do with that money? Do we see ourselves as part of a quality of circulation that supports the whole society even as our needs are met, or do we really just work for ourselves with accumulation as the endgame? Do we sell our labor at the highest possible rate—making us a commodity and taking us down a dehumanized path? If so, and this is the norm in our current economy, this reality is the antithesis of the spiritual.

Both Steiner and King worked to separate pay from labor. Though their thinking took different paths, the intention and result would be the same. Steiner said you cannot really attach a monetary value to a human being, you can only buy the product of their work. So, labor was freed to be right livelihood, while the pay was gauged to material needs. King was an advocate of a guaranteed income for all indexed to the median of all salaries. Part of this idea is to assure that all recipients could participate equitably in monetary circulation. This concept also separates labor from compensation, so that individuals could have freedom for their spirits. And, it should come as no surprise that the concept of a guaranteed income, or unconditional basic income [UBI] has surfaced again and is being proposed and prototyped in numerous places right now such as Stockton (CA), Finland, and Chicago.

Financial institutions have a huge role to play in rebuilding the connection between economic life and culture. How access to capital is handled, how risk is considered, how credit decisions are made, where and to what end capital is directed, and whether community self-determination is brought to the center, will all lead to a more connected, relational person-centered financial system. From this will come support to have an economy that works for all and at the same time make possible a freeing of the human spirit to revitalize culture. In and through this transformation, the efforts over the last hundred years, and especially the last fifty years will become active in a way that makes the future inviting and clear. But I am mindful that the forces of entrenched power will make themselves felt even more than they are. The antidote to this, as Reverend Barber might say, is that even with our differences we stand with each other for a just future.

John Bloom

John Bloom is vice president of organizational culture at RSF.

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