Human Need And The Economy
By James Keye
14 April, 2009
Human economies have no separate existence; they are not some universal latent design waiting for the human substrate to be displayed. We ask the wrong questions with: “What is wrong with the economy and how can we fix it?” Our first efforts must be to understand the origin of how we have come to exchange materials and behaviors, and then to ask: “Is this how we want to do our exchanges and what are the consequences?” It may seem a monumental task to retool the present way of assigning value and doing exchanges, but the current depth of troubles are pointing more and more directly to the conclusion that our present economic structures have run their course and are placing us, and the earth’s living systems, in the greatest peril.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may have begun as a classification of the internal motives of human action and the order in which they dominate our experience of life, but they have become a ‘selling’ list for the entrepreneur. A most basic biological tenet is that an organism is to be in primary control of the behaviors, environments and situations that meet its essential needs; that is to say, it is to be well adapted to its environment. A basic tenet of the entrepreneur is that no human need should be able to be met by the simple and direct action of the person; a way is to be found to intrude into the space between need and the behaviors or the material for the need’s satisfaction and to extract some amount of the energy in the transaction. And that is to say, a defining quality (as I have drawn it here) of the entrepreneur is very similar to the biological definition of parasitism.
In today’s human environment people do not directly meet their own needs, they purchase the terms of need satisfaction with abstract tokens that are intended as representations of energy or work. Such tokens only have power when a large enough number in a population honor that representation. And here is the tricky part: once people, structurally, have no means to meet their own needs by their direct action, then they must have a design or device that will move others to meet those needs. The consequence of this ‘reality’ is that ad hoc systems of exchange have transmogrified into economic structures. This is understandable, but what is not clear is why humans would see such tertiary, quaternary, etc. designs as primary… with magical properties.
Actually, it is not so mysterious; once we came to depend on these Rube Goldberg systems for the movement, storage and protection of abstract tokens of exchange, imbuing them with magical powers was a very human thing to do. This leads, ultimately, to a conflict of global proportion. The primary biological directive: ‘stay in direct control of need meeting behaviors and situations’ is challenged by the economic realities of an overpopulated and abstracted world where no need can be met without tokens of exchange; need-meeting opportunities all now have tollbooths.
We are at a place where the loss of faith in this Madness can destroy millions of lives, human and non-human. If we stop and wonder at the efficacy of existing money systems, if we even ask that they be examined or re-examined against biophysical models of reality, there is a great cry of foul, the threat of “economic failure” and even physical force. Also, those most vulnerable to perturbations in the system are actually harmed by the very suggestion of concern.
This is not to say that we are discouraged from giving attention to economics; it is understood that the designs of exchange can be a compelling study. How the tokens of exchange are given stable trade-able value, how items and behaviors are given value based on the stabilized token values or where and how these tokens move or are be stored and by whom, these are all questions that generate real, complex and fascinating options. But when such processes are seen as essentially immutable and more important than life itself, then a high level of insanity, strutting as authority, is doomed for a fall.
In our present situation this thinking leads to powerful contradictions: people are consuming less, which is a good thing for the biophysical reality. If this were to become habit and expectation, we just might be able to begin letting the planet heal itself, slow the loss of biodiversity, restructure human-environment relationships and just maybe begin to discover how to act in recognition of our outsized powers as change agents. Everyone would discover how to do with less, much less, that we do with now.
But… people are consuming less, so ways must be found to get people to consume more because the designs of the economic system require that consumption increase over time. If consumption slows, then the movement of the tokens of exchange slow and the designs that stabilize the value of the tokens and that assign token values for items and behaviors are perturbed. Trust is lost in the tokens and the whole structure becomes endangered. Since the only way to deliver essential needs is by the efficient functioning of the economic system, millions will suffer from even the slightest doubt or concern about its efficacy.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is nuts.
No one is of the opinion that humans can increase in number and use of earthly resources forever. It is clear, even to crazy people, that a bucket can be filled and then can hold no more. Sensible humans recognize that we have been for sometime now trying to overfill our place on the planet. This is bad news and most people do not like bad news, but then again most people prefer bad news to worse news.
Sensible people must continue to hammer away with the ‘bad news’ that material possession is a drug delivered by a pusher economy, and that devoting time to avoiding the ‘tollbooths’ is more species verifying than working for the tokens to pay at them (I don’t think it bad news at all, since a simple life has proven for me to be far more fulfilling and purpose filled than the “economic” life).
We will only be able to change the present total domination of almost every detail of our lives by an exchange token economy by being able to meet the most essential of our needs by our own efforts: that is the bad news. And it is also good news since there is nothing more rewarding than to be in real control of even a short life compared to being the disenfranchised observer of a life owned by an economic system.
James Keye is the nom de plume of a biologist and psychologist who after discovering a mismatch between academe and himself went into private business for many years. His whole post-pubescent life has been focused on understanding at both the intellectual and personal levels what it is to be of the human species; he claims some success. Email him at: email@example.com. Visit James's website.