Beyond Money: Life and Death in a Cruel Economy
“Everyone loved him.”
The hole was too deep; these words couldn’t fill it. But there they remain, floating on the regret, vibrant with the possibility of a different kind of world. We’ve always been in the process of building that world, but the process has lacked a central cohesion . . . a god, if you will, to bless it and keep it.
Antonis Perris, an unemployed musician from Athens, found himself at age 60 living in a world where the love of his community didn’t matter and probably wasn’t even noticeable: He had lost his means to earn a living. Until Europe’s economic crisis hit, he had sustained himself and his elderly mother performing at local taverns. He had done well. Then business dried up. Finally, he reached a point where he saw no way to keep on living. The brief story of his death last May — one more “economic suicide” — was reported recently in the Washington Post:
“The next morning, Perris took the hand of his ailing 90-year-old mother. They climbed to the roof of their apartment building and leapt to their death.”
Europe has had thousands of economic suicides in the last few years. They always shock the community. In Greece, which has been reeling in economic crisis for five years now, “The suicide notes left in coat pockets or on desks,” the Post writes, “. . . are being passed around on the Internet and studied like the final treatises of revered scholars.”
“Everyone loved him,” a local café owner said. People would have helped him out, and helped his mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. But they didn’t know how badly the two were doing. Now their deaths are a gash across the community, across the country and perhaps all of Europe — and perhaps large parts of the so-called First World, where the middle class is crumbling. The poverty and despoliation — the dark side of capitalism — are no longer contained, relegated to the Third World and the Third World pockets of the First.
The situation has gotten so bad that the idea of debt forgiveness is gaining mainstream cachet. Erik Kain, writing last October in Forbes, brought up “the old biblical idea of a jubilee — a national cancellation of private debts. . . "
“In many ways,” he observed, “rather than creating a sustainable economy built around steadily rising middle and working class wages, we’ve built an unsustainable economy built on consumer debt. That debt has propelled the growth we’ve seen in recent years, acting as a sort of perpetual Keynesian injection into the economy. Now we’re paying the price.”
While I see debt forgiveness as a move in the right direction — an acknowledgment that debt isn’t simply a moral failing, and that the wealth of creditors, who have in so many ways rigged the game in their favor, isn’t all the matters — I wince at the provincialism of those who limit their concern to the American middle class, or would do no more to fix the system than increase wages for the working and professional classes.
Better wages that are the result of devastated environmental regulations, or that come at the expense of the Third World or future generations? The economic crisis is global in nature and the flaws of the system are deep and profound.
“The economy’s only valid purpose is to serve life,” David Korten wrote this month in Yes! Magazine.
The economy should not be an end in itself, an irresistible force that we fail to serve at our peril — yet that’s the conventional attitude. The economic suicides of Europe and, indeed, of every country on the planet, are testimony to the prevalence of this belief. We serve money as though it were God. When it disappears from our life, the most honorable alternative, as we stare into the abyss, is suicide.
We live within an economic system that is cruel and impersonal, divorced from gratitude, empathy, compassion, love and nurturance. (Money, whatever else it is, is the root of all cynicism.) This system is also voracious. It’s eating the planet: eating, i.e., privatizing and selling back to us, what was once the human and environmental commons, the context of all life.
“Real capital assets,” writes Korten in his excellent essay, “have productive value in their own right and cannot be created with a computer key stroke. The most essential forms of real capital are social capital (the bonds of trust and caring essential to healthy community function) and biosystem capital (the living systems essential to Earth’s capacity to support life). We are depleting both with reckless abandon.”
Trapped within the present economic system, so many people have limited patience for what they value most deeply, e.g., the happiness and loving growth of children, the glorious fecundity of the earth, the peace that passes all understanding. Who has time? We all loved him, but . . .
As the system crashes, we have the opportunity to look beyond it. Let’s dig deeply to establish the foundation of its replacement.