I’ve been thrilled and privileged to participate in the Occupy movement via Occupy Pittsburgh.
While sitting out in the cold and rain, I got to having some deep thoughts about the poetics of the occupation and I figured I’d share them here with you.
I suggest the opposite of our failing capitalism isn’t socialism, it’s gift economy.
The term “occupy” has obvious military connotations. The poetic use of the term as a metaphor to describe a peaceful protest demands some reflection.
Currently, the U.S. military is just winding down a massive, costly and controversial occupation of Iraq. This occupation of Iraq is the prominent cultural back drop in the minds of most Americans when we hear the term “Occupy.” “Occupy” in this sense suggests going on to foreign soil where we’re not particularly wanted or welcome and ensuring that our interests are protected there.
Thus, the notion that we would need to Occupy Wall Street, for example, frames “Wall Street” as a kind of hostile foreign nation, a place where we need to send “troops” (of peaceful protesters) in order to control the situation there and to protect our interests.
But Wall Street is American soil, right? Why should we feel we need to “occupy” it?
How Wall Street Made Itself a Foreign Land: Usury
The answer to this, I believe, lies in the spiritual dimension of our financial institutions and failing economy. The spiritual malaise of Wall Street, the banking industry, and the corporations has created a sense of alienation and violation so potent that those institutions can no longer be perceived by Americans as even belonging to their country.
There’s a sense of these institutions and corporations as alien and hostile. This sense is not imaginary or paranoid. It’s completely correct, and it has its root in the alienating and hostile actions of those institutions towards the American people.
In order to make my point clear, I need to explain a few rather arcane (but fascinating) points which I first learned from Lewis Hyde’s brilliant book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.
To begin, the banking industry’s practice of usury is a practice that was recognized in spiritual traditions throughout the ancient world as an act which promoted division, suspicion, and alienation within a community. I think we need to reconsider ancient and indigenous attitudes towards usury in order to understand the extent to the unity and spiritual virtue of the United States has been violated by Wall Street.
Today, “usury” means “lending at unbearably high interest.” In the ancient world, usury just meant charging any interest at all on a loan.
Lending at interest itself is now widely accepted and taken for granted as perfectly acceptable and normal. Loan-sharking, or lending at really high and outrageous interest, is the only stuff that raises eyebrows now. Loan-sharking on the part of the banks is a large part of what created the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
We can keep in mind that the banks have practiced the intense form of usury-as-loan-sharking and that this practice has led to the current widespread poverty and outrage, but in order to understand the severity of loan-sharking, I want to start by discussing the problematic spiritual dimensions of usury, period.
In order to understand why usury (which is now so widely accepted) would be seen as a spiritual problem, we first need to understand a little bit about the way gifts work.
The Increase of the Gift
An interest-free loan is a form of a gift. For example: if I give you an interest-free loan of $1000 dollars, and you are able to use that loan to invest in a business which then makes you money. A year later, you return to me $1000, but you’ve still been able to create an “increase” out of the loan that I gave you, an increase that you wouldn’t have been able to enjoy if I hadn’t loaned you the $1000 to begin with. So the increase that you make on account of me loaning you $1000 is a kind of gift from me to you. Theoretically, if I had held on to my $1000 and not given it to you, I could have used the $1000 to invest and thereby enjoyed the increase myself.
Gifts are really cool because they create relationships of community and connection. There’s something magical and in harmony with the natural growth and decay of nature in the increase that properly treated gifts can create.
In indigenous cultures which maintained gift economies, it was always considered imperative that the increase generated by a gift be passed on or used up, and never hoarded or used as capital itself. This passing-on or “paying it forward” was thought to be necessary in order to keep the “spirit of the gift” moving. So, for example, if you were able to make $2000 out of the $1000 interest-free loan I had given you, it would be good form for you to spend that $2000 on necessities for you and your family or to throw a big party and share the wealth. It would be very bad form for you to keep that $2000 to invest as capital or to hoard in savings.
The idea behind this is that gifts in a community should be kept in circulation and not used to unduly benefit or to create an unfair advantage for any one individual. When gifts are hoarded or used to create only private benefit, the spirit of the gift dies and the nihilism of separation, meaninglessness and isolation arises. This nihilism of separation creates a general atmosphere of cruelty. It’s the atmosphere we’re living in now. It’s the atmosphere that the Occupy movement has arisen to protest.
The Spirit of the Gift
We can think of the “spirit of the gift” as a sense of gratitude that puts human beings in an attitude of reverence and love for each other, nature, and divinity. When gifts are kept moving and circulating, no one person has giant storehouses of money or goods to use as “security.” The “security” and “prosperity” of an individual is instead intimately tied to the security and prosperity of the community, and thus to relationships of good will, love, and interdependency. Furthermore, a person who is living in the spirit of the gift, rather than seeking to extract and hoard the riches of the earth in warehouses instead respectfully fosters and tends for the earth so as to continue to enjoy the bounty of her gifts in a sustainable fashion.
Living in the spirit of the gift is an act of faith. It involves a surrender of control. This surrender entails two spiritual attitudes that are largely unknown to our control-obsessed modern world: 1) A general trust that the community / nature / divinity will continue to provide and 2) A graceful willingness to accept death and suffering in the event that the community / nature / divinity does not provide.
The act of living in the spirit of the gift is something which my favorite poet and all-around-awesome dude, Jesus, pointed to many times, perhaps most memorably in his Sermon on the Mount, when he suggested that everyone live “like the lilies of the field.” The lilies of the field, J.C. pointed out, don’t do any work or save for rainy days, and yet they’re gorgeous and happy. The lilies live in the spirit of the gift, accepting the nourishment of the sun and earth and giving forth radiant beauty. Then they gracefully die when it gets cold and they don’t whine about it. They don’t control or hoard anything.
The Nihilism of Usury and the Control Freaks of Wall Street
Usury, in essence, is an expression of fear and clinging to material existence. It’s a refusal to surrender control. Usury hears about the notion of living like the lilies of the field and says “screw that!”
Usury seeks to maintain control over the increase generated by a gift. It thus kills the spirit of the gift and creates disconnection.
When I give you that $1000 interest-free loan, I’m letting go of my say over that money. I’m letting you “use” it. In turn, in our little gift society, I trust that you will put your “use” of the gift (the increase you accrue from investing it) to benefit all of us. But I’m trusting. I’ve surrendered control of the “use” of the gift. Through my trust, I’m making space for the spirit of the gift to live and breathe.
When I give you a $1000 dollar loan with 20% interest, I’m not letting go of my say over that money. I’m not trusting that you will use the increase of the gift to ultimately benefit our community and thus me. I’m demanding that you put the increase that you generate through your “use” of the gift back in my pocket. Thus I am controlling the “use-stuff” or “use-ury” or of the gift. In my control, I don’t trust you and I certainly don’t love you.
Usury = commerce between foreigners
Lewis Hyde explains:
To ask for interest on loaned wealth is to reckon, articulate, and charge its increase. The idea of usury therefore appears when spiritual, moral, and economic life begins to be separated from one another, probably at the time when foreign trade, exchange with strangers, begins. As we saw in an earlier chapter, wherever property circulates as a gift, the increase that accompanies that circulation is simultaneously material, social, and spiritual; where wealth moves as a gift, any increase in material wealth is automatically accompanied by the increased conviviality of the group and the strengthening of the hau, the spirit of the gift. But when foreign trade begins, the tendency is to differentiate the material increase from the social and spiritual increase, and a commercial language appears to articulate the difference. When exchange no longer connects one person to another, when the spirit of the gift is absent, then increase does not appear between gift partners, usury appears between debtors and creditors.
(144-145 The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World)
The key point that Hyde makes here is that usury begins when foreign trade begins. It’s an economic relationship forged between groups of people who have no necessary bonds to each other communally or spiritually and who do not trust each other. It’s a relationship of outsider to outsider.
Think about this: usury now colors every exchange in our financial institutions. The banks lend to us, the people, at interest– and in the case of the sub-prime mortgage crisis at insanely high, loan-sharking interest. They might call themselves things like “Bank of America” but to them, we, their debtors, are obviously foreigners.
The Occupy Movement as a Gift Society
Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the movement against the banks, against our financial institutions and corrupt government and corporations calls itself an “Occupation” and takes the form of physical encampments.
We are occupying Wall Street and occupying symbolic squares and parks in our hometowns because the banks have made themselves foreigners to us through their usury. We have no fellow-feeling and good-will for them because we have no trace of a gift relationship with them. They’ve destroyed the spirit of the gift through their rapacious lust to control and their absolute unwillingness to trust.
They’ve treated us, the people, their fellow citizens, like strangers.
To speak in biblical terms, our financial institutions have committed grave sins and the consequences of those sins are alienation and disunity.
It is absolutely no accident that the Occupy encampments in NYC and throughout the world are operating as communal gift economies with free healthcare (in the form of medic tents), free education (in the form of teach-ins, speakers, and lending libraries), free food, free shelter (in the form of donated tents, clothing, sleeping bags, etc.), and free entertainment (as people share their musical and artistic skills).
The Occupy encampments are modeling the living power of the spirit of the gift which the banks, corporations, and corrupt government of the United States had sought to destroy through usury, among other means.
Debts create suspicion, scarcity, distrust and death. Gifts create love, abundance, trust and life.
Why doesn’t Occupy need to articulate demands?
In the Occupy movement, the spirit of the gift is rising up and roaring through the hearts and minds of people throughout the world. This is what makes it enormously powerful and wonderful.
This is why it doesn’t need to “articulate demands.” The demand of the movement is implicit in its very existence. The medium is the message. Gifts, not debts. Consensus, not tyranny. Community, not commodity. The time has come. The spirit will prevail.
Edited by Hayley Samuelson