If the Book of Jonah were not over 2500 years old, I would think the author wrote it on an LSD trip. But despite its age, bizarre events and extreme brevity – only 1200 words – Jonah teaches lessons still relevant, maybe crucial today.
Religious teachers usually boil Jonah’s message down to, ‘Just do what God tells you,’ but, as with other Bible stories, you don’t have to believe in God to learn from this book. You can see the whole book as metaphor and still get the point. Here are three other powerful themes in Jonah, chosen because they hit me personally in this crisis time. Maybe later I’ll write about the whale.
Do what you are called to do, which may not be what you like to do. If you have a calling, a reason for being on Earth, a quest that your heart wants, don’t shy away. The world needs your gifts and your service; holding back isn’t helping anybody.
Jonah was at home in Israel, just chilling, when God told him, “Arise. Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.” (Jonah 1:2)
But that was a huge ask. Nineveh (near what is now Baghdad) would have been a trip of over 500 miles, requiring a month’s journey, risking death by bandits the whole way. Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was the biggest, most powerful city in the world at the time, an enemy of Israel, and Jonah didn’t even speak their language.
Quests are often intimidating; whether it’s starting a new career or stopping police violence, or most other things worth doing. They may be difficult; they may be uncomfortable or dangerous. They may require daunting amounts of work for long periods of time, with low probabilities of success.
Your calling may even appear impossible, but if you run away from it, it will torment you for life. In Jonah’s case, he ran the opposite direction and got on a boat headed to the farthest reaches of the world. It didn’t help; God created a huge storm that threatened to sink the ship – another metaphor –so that the sailors had to throw Jonah overboard to save themselves. Refusing his calling almost cost him his life.
Impossible things can happen – Jonah survived the sea thanks to a giant fish, and he learned his lesson. When God told him again to go to Nineveh, he went.
Now, preaching to the Ninevites was not likely to have much effect. Of the 16 prophets named in the Hebrew Bible, none of them succeeded in getting people to change their bad habits. That’s 0 out of 16, and Jonah had the added handicap of being a foreigner with language problems. What were the chances the 120,000 residents of the richest city in the world would listen to him?
Jonah kept it simple. His only words recorded in the book are: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4)
But to Jonah’s surprise, the Ninevites believed him. “They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5). Then a miracle happened. The king heard about Jonah and declared that all of Nineveh, even the animals, should fast and wear sackcloth and ashes, and cry out to God for mercy. The whole city repented, and God relented. Jonah succeeded where all the other Bible prophets failed.
Are we in Nineveh yet?
When we look at the enormous challenges involved in transforming our cruel, corrupt, environmentally-destructive modern societies into loving, sustainable ones, Nineveh’s transformation is a source of hope. As philosopher Charles Eisenstein, author of The Ascent of Humanity said in this TED talk, looked at objectively, it’s almost impossible to imagine society changing so dramatically. From a scientific point of view, it’s hard to see how we’ll be able to stop global warming.
There may be no way it could happen, but perhaps it will happen anyway. It happened in Nineveh. As jazz great Sun Ra said, “Everything possible has been tried and failed. Now it’s time to try the impossible.”
Sun Ra image sunra.com
The Ninevites are just like you. The MAGA -hat wearers are just like me. When Jonah leaves Nineveh, its walls still standing, with its people reformed and alive, he is not happy with his amazing accomplishment. He’s angry that God didn’t follow through on his threat to destroy the city. God has to show him that the Ninevites are people, too.
Just as God forgave Jonah for his disobedience and sent the fish to rescue him, they – (I don’t know God’s preferred pronouns, so I’m going with they/them) — would forgive the Ninevites, and Jonah would have to accept it.
In his song The Ninevites songwriter Will Fudeman illustrates the problems with Jonah’s typically human desire to feel superior to the people he seeks to change. If we start out with the belief that we are better, smarter, or more enlightened than those with whom we disagree, we will not change anyone or come to peace with them.
If we do not realize that to change the world or change other people, we also have to change ourselves, we will not be effective. We might make things worse. By making people feel attacked or disrespected, we may drive them away from our perspective.
What does Jonah have to say in the 21st Century? How about this: take on the world’s need that calls you, no matter how hard it is. At least you’ll have an adventure. And who knows, seeming miracles do happen. Maybe they will happen for us, if we learn to treat everyone as if they were people like us.
“We construct a cubicle for ourselves and think that is our life.” Zach Bush MD
We believe that the world as we see it is real, but what if it isn’t? What if our society, our economy, our values, and all the structures we live by are only narratives, stories we tell each other? What would we do without the stories — most of them untrue — that control our lives?
We’re about to find out. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently told world leaders, “Covid-19-has been likened to an X-ray, revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built. It is exposing-fallacies-and-falsehoods-everywhere: the lie that free markets can deliver health care for all, the fiction that unpaid care work is not work, the delusion that we live in a post-racist world, the myth that we are all in the same boat.”-
Covid-19, the Depression and the rebellions against police violence, are indeed waking people up. All the old narratives, like scarcity, race and individual separateness no longer make sense. How can we believe wealth is based on merit and hard work, when workers classed as essential are paid minimum wage, while billionaires get free government bailouts? How can health care, housing, and food depend on jobs that don’t exist?
Stories are Shackles
The old stories have been revealed as shackles that more powerful people put on us. The rules that leave some people in the streets, others in prison, others in mansions; the ideas that bound our parents, their parents, and everyone for 1000 years are going down in flames. As travel writer Kristin Wilson puts it, “The pandemic has obliterated our old societal paradigm and shattered what we thought we knew about life.”
Many folks are terrified, because we all need some order in our lives. But scary as it is, when we see through the narratives, we will be free. What will that be like: chaos, anarchy and poverty, or a new future with new narratives that bring us together?
Can you imagine living without scarcity, without enemies or greed? It might not be as radically different as it sounds. When we’re free of narrative shackles, we’ll probably do a lot of the same things we do now. We’ll still have to farm, make and fix things, and take care of each other. We’ll just work in a happier, saner, gentler way.
Christian economist Lynne Twist, author of The Soul of Money, says there are three myths about wealth that distort our lives: scarcity, more is better, and the permanence of current social relations. She says the opposites are true. “There is enough. More is not better. Our drive to enlarge our net worth turns us away from discovering and deepening our self-worth…Our behavior is not permanently fixed; we can choose to act differently.”
When we recognize the abundance the world is trying to give us, we won’t have to work so hard or consume so much. We could relax, work to make the world better, and enjoy life.
Crisis Leads to Opportunities
Secretary-General Guterres said, “COVID-19 is a human tragedy but has also created an opportunity to build back a more equal and sustainable world.” Can we take the opportunity this crisis forces on us, and rewrite our society’s stories? It will be hard, but not that complicated, perhaps only two steps:
Step 1: Recognize that the social structures we take for granted: like who creates money, how money is distributed, who owns land and what ownership means, and how we should relate to each other are only narratives. They don’t come from Nature or from God. People created them, and people do them differently in different places and times.
Step 2: Create new narratives like distributing basic income to everyone. Mr. Guterres called for a New Global Deal “based on the rights and dignity of every human being, living in balance with nature, respect for the rights of future generations, writing off unfair international debts.” Other starter stories could be defining health care and housing as human rights. And who knows what other brilliant ideas liberated people might create?
A year ago, such scenarios would have sounded like a cannabis dream. How will the bankers, generals, lords and ladies of our world ever be persuaded to give up the narratives that bring them so much wealth and power? How could ordinary people, however many billions of us rise up, overcome the massive military force and institutionalized power of the ruling classes?
But COVID has enabled us to see past the invisible walls that imprison us. We can see that we don’t have to fight on their battlefield. All we have to do is change the narrative. When people see the more beautiful world that is possible, some of them will drop their guns, take off their helmets or their three-piece suits and join a new narrative that brings more love into their lives.
Do people really change like that? Individuals can. Psychologists tell me that therapy is the process of helping people to see their own narratives and let go of them. Therapists have so much work because people rarely let go of the stories that make them miserable, until they reach a level of pain they can no longer tolerate.
Could the same be true of a society, of a culture or all humanity? It sounds a huge project, but look around. Our social narratives are not only causing us pain; they are literally killing us. Every day, more people disbelieve the constant fear stories they are told about China, Russia, terrorism, crime, etc. We have been lied to for so long, about so many things, that ever-fewer people take our rulers’ word for anything.
When nobody believes the old stories, they will die. And we will have a chance to live. So, speak up. It’s not enough to mumble truth to power. Shout it out to everyone.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
More on the society coming into view: The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible and
Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein charleseisenstein.org
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life Barbara Kingsolver
Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching about Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word Linda Christensen
Thank you for defending your government and your corporations from disinformation and fake news. Each day, our shared understanding of reality is being challenged. Each day, new stories and facts undercut our approved narrative. We need good citizens like you to make sure alternative information is not seriously considered by any except a lunatic fringe.
One way to control information is called ‘gaslighting,’ meaning to push people to deny their own experience and believe things for which they have no evidence. The term comes from a 1944 movie called Gaslight, in which a man (Charles Boyer) plays a series of tricks on his new wife (Ingrid Bergman) to convince her she is crazy. Some of the tricks involve the gas-powered light system.
Boyer torments Bergman to get her into an insane asylum, so he will have the house to himself. Sometimes, your government has to do things like that, too. The USA is our house, and we need to protect our American way of life, even if it means making a few people crazy.
Gaslighting is not easy, though; people don’t readily disbelieve their senses or embrace ideas without evidence. That’s why we prepared this handy list of strategies you can use — the same ones we use — to maintain your narrative.
Insult people who don’t believe the approved story. Call them conspiracy theorists, crackpots, Covidiots, or come up with your own name. Ask them how their tinfoil hat is fitting.
2. Yell ‘Science’ at anyone who disagrees. Although science normally involves evaluating all sides of an issue, we define science as whatever evidence supports the government’s story. Claim “mountains of evidence” to support the official position, or call those who disagree ‘science deniers.’ Example: Follow the science that says hydroxychloroquine doesn’t work for COVID-19; ignore the science that says it does.
3. Use terms like ‘discredited,’ ‘disproved,’ and ‘debunked’ to describe noncompliant beliefs, without providing any evidence of where they are wrong. Example: claims that 5G wireless radiatio causes health problems are ‘debunked,’ even though there has been little or no research.
4. Don’t be afraid to change your story, and never acknowledge that you’ve changed. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda were our friends in Afghanistan, then our enemies in the War on Terror, now our friends again in Syria. Truth can change; people forget. President Trump changes his message every day, and nobody seems to notice.
5. Don’t be afraid to be absurd or ridiculous. Look at what we convinced people to believe on September 11, 2001. A hijacker’s passport miraculously ‘found on the ground’ near the World Trade Center. Three steel skyscrapers crashed straight down, which no other skyscraper in history ever has done without a controlled demolition. An airplane ‘crashed’ in Pennsylvania, leaving virtually no wreckage. It doesn’t matter how absurd our story is: just keep acting like it’s completely rational and call disbelievers conspiracy theorists.
6. Repetition — The more often people hear something, the more likely they are to believe it. That is why we tell the same story in 100 different ways on multiple media platforms. Remember that a story can be disproven many times, and people will still believe it if it’s said often by an authoritative voice.
Example: liberal media kept repeating Russia collusion narratives about the 2016 election, despite every single specific claim being shown baseless. After three years and several investigations, when all the charges fell through, these platforms acted like those years were no big deal. Our media still blames Russia for everything and attacks President Trump as a Russian puppet, and people still believe them.
7. Cancel the skeptics — Point to something they have said in the past, on any topic, that can be used to make them seem ridiculous, racist, or some other disqualifying trait. Or point to some other person they have associated with who is so disagreeable that mere association disqualifies the speaker. Example: when Rep. Tulsi Gabbard appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox TV show, liberals immediately said her antiwar message was now out of bounds, because “She went on Fox!”
8. If you’re in a position of authority, sympathetically tell people you approve of their demands and understand their position, while doing nothing at all to address their grievances. They must be crazy if they can’t see you’re on their side.
9. Remember, the goal isn’t to convince people of your position. It’s to make them doubt themselves, doubt reality, and ultimately to give up and say, “Whatever.”
We can’t overstate how important this work is. Facts in specific cases may clash with our stories, but we must uphold the larger truth — that America, our government, and our corporations are good and our opponents are evil. Winston Churchill said, “Truth is so precious it must be attended with a bodyguard of lies.” You are part of truth’s bodyguard. Thank you for your efforts on behalf of America!
Nations and people talked constantly about how to resist the dragon, who they called Sam – though it had many other names – but they had a tough assignment. Sam’s heads left no doubt they would destroy the whole world if they felt threatened. Like most dragons, they hoarded resources and money, and with those assets installed and controlled leaders in other countries who would do their bidding.
Sam’s heads constantly spun webs of stories, with which to distract, confuse, and terrorize. Different heads told slightly different tales, though all agreed on the main points. These stories were its source of power.
One head glittered with gold and sparkled with dollar signs. That one spun narratives about money, how it was a natural thing like food or air, and people who had more of it deserved to live better and tell those with less what to do. More than that, money was alive, like a garden or a forest. If you held on to it, it naturally grew. If you didn’t have it, you suffered. So, even though it was only a made-up story, most people focused on and evaluated their lives by money, which made them miserable, because a few people controlled nearly all of it and didn’t share.
Another head was shaped like a missile and bristled with guns. It created horror stories of enemies in places far and near, of diseases and disasters that would come if they let their guard down. One head wore a white sheet and showed videos about how people who looked different were inferior and posed threats. Another appeared made of special effects and encouraged people to spend their days being entertained. One looked like a donkey for some reason, and one like an elephant. All of them had the same story about work: that it was necessary, the most important thing in life, but should be as miserable and poorly-paid as possible. These heads and others tried to show the world an intimidating collective face, but often fought each other in courts, media, and elections, or by assassination.
People living in Sam’s domain were of two minds about identifying with a dragon. The heads kept telling them that they were the greatest people in the world, and some believed those stories, even as their lives became meaner and more desperate. They clung to Sam’s narratives, and attacked anyone who challenged their chosen stories.
Propagandized as they were, the people might still have been able to fight the heads, but they were too divided. Some people supported one head, and some supported another, and constant fights broke out between them. The heads hired some people and dressed them in uniforms with guns to suppress the others, and a vast chain of prison camps sprang up in towns and villages across the land, with some residents caged and others paid to control them.
Sam seemed invincible. It was falling apart inside, but what could people do? They didn’t know the monster was held together by nothing more than stories and that those stories were increasingly disbelieved. They were too afraid, confused, and divided to fight back, and they lacked alternative narratives of their own. Then, when all seemed hopeless, there came a magic bug.
The bug’s name was Corolla, and in large doses, it could be fatal. Most people were scared of Corolla, but they were familiar with death and disease and prepared to go on living with this one. Some of the heads had different ideas, though. They thought a new bug could be a powerful weapon. They could use it to drive people into their homes while they stole larger fortunes and increased their power. Some heads thought their story of Corolla would win people to support them over other heads with different stories.
No one knew where Corolla came from. Some said from bats in caves; some from mammals in markets; some from the laboratories of the military. Some blamed distant countries; others blamed Sam. Whatever, various monster heads grabbed onto it and used it like a wrecking ball. They swung it back and forth, closing cities down, opening them up, blaming each other for the death and destruction.
Soon, most of the businesses, jobs, entertainment, and schools that made up Sam’s inner world lay in broken heaps. People who could still work, worked for less, slept in the street, ate what they could. It got harder for Sam to stomp around the world or pretend to be great when its insides were in so much pain.
At first, few noticed that their narrative shackles were crumbling along with their lives. How could people believe that wealth was based on merit and hard work, when workers deemed essential were paid minimum wage, while billionaires got free bailouts? How could people’s housing, food, and healthcare depend on jobs that didn’t exist? It made more sense that money should be a thing distributed to all, and people demanded universal income, healthcare, housing and education.
But Sam’s heads could not accept those demands; they would tear down the narrative structure that held the monster together. If people understood that scarcity is a myth, that private property, meritocracy, and race were only narratives without objective reality, Sam’s cruelty within and its wars without could not be justified. The heads turned against the people and against each other, seeking to keep their structure intact through force, creating a new narrative in which most of the people were enemies.
They kept slinging Corolla back and forth, and with each swing, things got worse. It was almost like the bug was inside Sam’s heads, making them do self-destructive things, as some germs can do to their hosts. People got hungrier, more desperate, lost their fear. They started seeing each other as brothers, sisters, and cousins instead of as rivals and threats.
They stopped accepting police violence, resisted, and some police eventually decided to serve people, not just protect property. They put down their guns and started acting as uniformed social workers, instead of as an occupying army. People won basic income, and suddenly jobs that killed souls and bodies had no takers. The owners had to make jobs better, and basic income and better jobs spread around the world. Of course, prices then rose, so people had to consume less, but they realized, after a moment’s media-inspired panic, that this, too, was a good thing. They tore up their lawns and parking lots and planted gardens to feed each other.
Corolla was still making people sick, and the people saw that guaranteed income was not enough to beat it, that we would have to have functioning communities and a government that cared. Then they realized that a caring government wouldn’t be killing people around the world. The soldiers demanded to leave their overseas bases and come home to help.
Because people were now collaborating instead of fighting each other, they had energy for caring about the animals and plants, the forests and water. Over time, the multi-headed dragon gradually shrank and transformed. Life became more pleasant; people started remembering joy and sharing their burdens and their love.
Now you and I are on the run
Pursued by monsters real and imagined
Driven by fear, we stand at the edge
Of a wilderness, strange roars in the distance
Storms whirling around us.
And people are saying to each other
We can’t stay here, and we can’t go on.
We’re scared to death, and some are
Actually dying. We must get back to normal!
But a few youths, the most abused or the
Bravest ones, say they can’t go back.
They won’t go back.
‘People back there are locked in their houses,’
They remind us. ‘They’re out of work, depressed, scared.
Forests and oceans are dying.
Bombs are dropping. We refuse.
To do normal; we couldn’t if we tried.’
They set off into the jungle. Will you
Follow them? Or will you try to go back
To where workers are disposable,
Where health care is unaffordable, but bombs
Are free to those who drop them.
Is this the world you want?
Because COVID is our chance to change.
In the land of normal, all that matters is profit
and loss. Not health, beauty, truth, not
Art or justice. Black lives don’t matter, nor do
Anyone else’s. Only money matters,
And money is just a story. Why go back
to a story that is killing us?
Can we follow the brave ones; can we
Come together: races, sexes, nationalities,
Ages, orientations, religions? Can we
Let go of the stories our rulers tell
To terrify us, to keep us divided and in line?
Will you brave the wilderness
With me? Connect with Nature, love
The animals and plants, and each other.
Face down the guns of the lost-soul armies
Panicked inside their helmets. Face
Loss of income, home, freedom, safety and
Embrace the future beyond the wilderness?
We can’t go back to normal. Normal collapsed
For a reason. We need income basic to life,
Given to All. We need health care, housing, food.
We can afford all this, because scarcity is a lie
The rulers tell us to justify their own wealth.
So many questions, barriers, but we have brilliant, Creative people to guide us. The important thing,
The only thing, is to commit to the journey. The way
Forward Is frightening, but the only way. We need
To be heroes, live with love and courage because we’re
Not going back to normal. There’s nothing there for us.
“It is well that people do not understand our banking and monetary system. If they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.” attributed to Henry Ford
Whether or not the fabulously wealthy Nazi sympathizer Ford used exactly those words, it is undeniable that most of us don’t understand money, and our rulers depend on our ignorance. We believe money is real, that it is a powerful force that must be obeyed. Money puts a number on the worth of all things, on our work, on animals and plants and people. It turns all of Nature and all human talents into commodities. How much money can we get for this forest? How little can we pay these guys to bulldoze it? Having or not having money is the difference between living in a penthouse and sleeping in the alleyway outside.
Is our concept of money based on any objective reality? Most philosophers and economists don’t think so. Financial educator and Investopedia co-founder Andrew Beattie writes: “Money in and of itself is nothing. It is valuable merely because everyone knows everyone else will accept it as a form of payment.” Other scholars like Jeremy Grenkowitz agree, saying money is a “social construction, collective make-believe, a story.”
The accepted story of money has fostered development, wealth and technological growth, but it isn’t working any more. The natural world is being raped to death for a few people’s profit, while millions sink into poverty. In this story, says Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of Revolutionary Love, “we assume that profits must be the foundation for all our economic interactions. We judge our institutions to be productive and efficient and rational to the extent that they maximize money and power.” If a company’s stock price is rising, it’s doing something right, no matter who it’s killing. If you’re poor, you’re doing something wrong, no matter how much you’re helping others.
That’s what the story of money tells us, but it’s just a story, one we desperately need to change. And we can. At this critical moment, COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and the economic shutdown are challenging the world to find a new story and showing us what it might be.
A Brief history of money
Money started out a brilliant story. Instead of bartering an animal skin for some cabbages or whatever, people could sell what they had for money and use it to buy whatever they needed. Andrew Beattie says this was a great advance, “increasing the speed at which business, could be done.” People in many countries started using clay or metal tokens to denote value and agreed to accept them in exchange for goods. Around 800 CE, the Chinese invented paper money. All these tokens and bills only had value because there was a social narrative that said so.
Money made the world richer by enabling trade, but over centuries, it metastasized into a way to store wealth, enabling its possessors to influence and control the world. New forms keep being developed: checking accounts, credit cards, mobile financial apps, stocks, bonds, derivatives. Now, money is everywhere, a god-like force that few can understand, but which controls our lives.
Those who have money use it to gain control of governments. Then, they use the State’s power to further enrich themselves. They benefit from society’s infrastructure (like transportation, water, energy supplies, the Internet,) and write tax laws that make the rest of us pay for them. Meanwhile, people without money can be denied food, clothing, and shelter. They can be forced to work dangerous, demeaning, exhausting jobs for long hours at low pay. For lack of money, millions of people in America can’t afford water, a resource Nature provides absolutely free. Money enables resource extraction companies and ranchers to corrupt governments, displace indigenous people and destroy environments.
The current story of money is enforced through increasingly violent policing. In this story, it makes sense that 16 million housing units lie vacant, while over 500,000 people lack shelter on any given night. Those people don’t have any money, so no right to a bed. While millions are hungry and food banks run out of food, farmers are dumping or burying millions of eggs, truckloads of milk and tons of produce they cannot sell. These paradoxes are in no way moral or economically efficient, but they can seem rational within our narrative of money.
Valuing money over people is part of this story. Workers are used up and thrown out. Customers are markets to be taken advantage of. The natural world is turned into products, and what cannot be sold can be burned. Our story of money justifies these and many other forms of madness, including mass unemployment and mass incarceration. In this story, we can’t afford to treat each other well. Caring is for losers.
A new story of money
But what if we changed the narrative? What if we returned money to what it was meant to be? Instead of being something ones accumulates and hoards, money would only be something you exchange with other people to get necessities you can’t make yourself. Governments could distribute as basic income an amount of money calculated as adequate to enable all normal transactions. They might create another pot of money for projects, infrastructure development and repair, and for emergencies.
In this story, people who work get more, but nobody is in a ‘work-or-starve’ situation. People can save or invest, but interest rates would be zero or be negative, to encourage them to spend. So, in this narrative, money is just a tool. Nobody can use it to control their government; nobody would be a billionaire. Hoarding money would be as silly as hoarding hammers. Such stories and better ones are being developed in books like Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics.
Such radical change might have seemed impossible five years ago, but the COVID shutdown and the rebellion against police violence have changed everything. We can see glimmers of the new story in the midst of the shutdown. As government has paid high levels of unemployment compensation benefits to millions of laid off workers, those who receive them are living well without work, while those who don’t are suffering. So why not give such compensation to all, and make it permanent?
‘That won’t work,’ I can hear capitalists saying. ‘Who would do the nasty, soul-killing work that needs doing? Nobody would work long days butcheringhogs or run themselves ragged in an Amazon fulfillment center if they didn’t have to. Who would break their backs picking strawberries if they had a basic income without doing it?’
Maybe they wouldn’t. I know I wouldn’t. But should a job exist if people have to be forced to do it? Maybe employers would have to make jobs better, make them more humane, stop treating workers like machines. Maybe they would have to shorten the work day, slow down the pace, pay higher wages, hire more people, provide healthier, safer, more tolerable conditions. Of course, labor costs and prices would then rise, so people would have to consume less. But wouldn’t this be a good thing? We consume far more than our ancestors did, usually far more than is good for us. As Rabbi Lerner says, we need a New Bottom Line, maximizing health and well-being, caring and compassion, not profit.
I have also heard believers in the Puritan work ethic say that a new story of money would be the Devil’s playground. In the work ethic, first developed by 16th Century theologian John Calvin, wealth is a sign of God’s grace. Lack of wealth means you’re a bad person and will probably burn in Hell. Giving people something for nothing is the surest way to corrupt them, make them lazy, and lead them into sin. In this story of money, nothing should be free for working-class people.
I have seen that giving people too much can spoil them, so they never learn to provide for themselves. But a new story of money would include requirements to work. People want to do useful work, and much work actually needs doing. Employers and government would simply provide opportunities for people to do good things, as they did in the Great Depression with the Works Project Administration and the Conservation Corps. The proposed Green New Deal includes such programs.
Economists warn of the dangers of inflation: when money loses its value and you need a bucket full of cash to buy a loaf of bread. This has happened many times, for many reasons, including governments’ creating too much money. Politicians might phrase the same concern as “How will we pay for it?” Two answers to this legitimate ask:
1. Tax the rich. Go back to USA’s glory days in the 1950s when the top income tax was 90%, and add a wealth tax on the billionaire class. This will take away money’s power to corrupt governments and will pay for needed programs.
2. This is an old story question. Who is paying for what? We never hear experts warning of inflation or asking how we’ll pay the $30 billion or so the Federal Reserve has been giving the banks every month for 12 years as Quantitative Easing. They don’t warn about the inflationary impact or ask how we’ll pay for the annual $750+ billion military budget. Why should basic income, rent support and food cause massive inflation? Prices aren’t rising much now, during a time of decent unemployment compensation.
Finally, capitalist historians point to the failure of communism. Without the profit motive and without the threat of starvation, people didn’t work hard enough, and in the absence of markets, planners couldn’t coordinate who did what and how. The government wound up having to use force to motivate work, and things got pretty ugly. But the new story is not communism. There will still be markets. Individual effort, creativity and achievement will still be rewarded. It’s just the goals of that effort will change, to focus on a more caring, beautiful, sustainable world.
Rewriting money now
Although corporations will fight hard to keep the old story, we could still win. We could demand forgiveness of debts, massive reductions of rents and mortgages, basic income for all, food for those who need it, universal health care, disarming the police, and a lot more. All those demands are reasonable and doable. Debt forgiveness was a human tradition for thousands of years, sometimes called ‘Jubilee.’ It’s in the Bible, a periodic release of debts and of slaves, commanded by God as a way to keep societies together.
Many in government and finance, however, don’t want Jubilee or a new story. They want to stop generous unemployment benefits as economies “open up,” forcing people back to work. The super-rich can’t accept the story of money as a medium of exchange created by government and distributed to the people. They want money to stop flowing out and return to them, its rightful owners.
This is the struggle, the revolutionary moment we’re in now. The related issues of pandemic, mass unemployment and police violence affect everyone. The last thing any of us should want is to get back to “normal.” Normal is killing our people and our planet. We need a new story which sees success as what Rabbi Lerner calls a “Caring Society” that serves people, and all life on Earth, not as endless growth and production of more stuff. We don’t want a normal that needs militarized police and soldiers to enforce it.
We can do this. Black Lives Matter is giving strong leadership. People are in the streets. There will be a million details to work out, which will take lifetimes of effort, and better minds than mine, but what is the alternative? If we are going to survive, we need to put money back in its place, as our tool, not our ruler.