• Michael Martin

As if: Economics as if life really mattered

Stella Matutina Farm

In his fascinating book The Time That Remains, Giorgio Agamben observes that St. Paul’s mission was grounded in founding “the ekklēsia, the messianic community.”[1] Though many Catholic parishes and congregations of other denominations have adopted the milquetoasty rhetoric of calling themselves “communities” at the expense of “parishes,” one has to wonder why the messianic vocation has been ignored in favor of “mission-statement Christianity.” For either we are parts of a messianic community or we are just another social identity group, which is to be nothing. “The Messiah has already arrived, the messianic event has already happened, but its presence contains within itself another time, which stretches its parousia, not in order to defer it, but, on the contrary, to make it graspable.”[2]

Agamben meditates on Paul’s advice to his flock to live “as if” both in the world and not in the world; as if in time, yet also outside of time; as if a slave, yet also free. Is not this our only vocation? Yet how often we find ourselves only in our world, time, and condition, unable to recognize the presence of the Kingdom opened to us. In operational time, which it seems is the only time that really matters to us, we exist in a scientistic, materialist, utilitarian, and moralistic milieu defined by functionality and efficiency, the only respite from which we find in the Eucharist and in prayer if we are so inclined to participate in them.

To participate in the Kingdom is to participate in the Real. We must, therefore, participate as if the Kingdom existed. It only truly awakens when we are attentive to it. When we divert our gaze it disappears. To be attentive to the Kingdom is to be immersed in the oikonomia of things. My claim is that to participate in the Real is simultaneously to participate in the Kingdom, which is to already participate in the Church. This may or may not include formal membership in an ecclesial body, but we have to trust that Christ is the Real, the Kingdom, and the Bridegroom, or why even bother?

This true oikonomia will have many different forms and permutations. “Economy,” as typically practiced in our culture at this historical moment “is a function of death…. However far man goes in his economic progress, he remains a slave, subject to death, even as he becomes a master.”[3] The true purpose of oikonomia, according to Sergei Bulgakov, “is to defend and to spread the seeds of life, to resurrect nature. This is the action of Sophia on the universe in an effort to restore it to being in truth…. Economic activity overcomes the divisions in nature, and its ultimate goal…is to return the world to life in Sophia.”[4] Our economic activity, however it is expressed, should be directed to this end.

A sound oikonomia, first of all, begins with a sound ontology, “a clarification of metaphysics.”[5] Without a proper understanding of reality, we already find ourselves indentured to the unreal. Economist Guido Preparata suggests that such a wholesome oikonomia constitutes a “reinvention of consumption,” and consumption, quite poignantly, begins in our relationship to nature. Our current relationship to nature through consumption, however, is characterized by pathology: Big Agriculture, for one, has done far more to envenom the environment than even General Motors; and the poisons with which Big Ag seasons our foods are practically impossible to avoid.

A proper relationship to nature, on the other hand, would compel us to imitate nature. As Preparata argues, “We must imitate nature by reproducing its essential processes—processes which are founded on three principles: zero-waste, solar energy, biodiversity & symbiosis.”[6] Oikonomia, therefore, begins with agriculture, but not the toxic leviathan that is the agriculture we have come to tolerate if not accept. “The farmers and agriculturalists of our project,” explains Preparata,

inhabit a landscape governed by these principles: the ideal model is that of the bio-dynamic farm. A bio-dynamic farm is characterized by the absence of importation (viz. closed-circuit cycle), zero-waste (the output of a sector serves as the input of another), diversity (crop-rotation and diverse ecosystems instead of intensive mono-cultivation), and a symbiotic relationship with all the elements of the wider living system.[7]

Such an approach is entirely congruent with that E.F. Schumacher sets out in his revolutionary text Small is Beautiful. As Schumacher explains, “If we could return a generous recognition of meta-economic values, our landscapes would become healthy and beautiful again and our people would regain the dignity of man, who knows himself as higher than the animal but never forgets that noblesse oblige.”[8]

Over the past twenty-five years or so, the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) movement has shown that not only is such an idea possible, but also financially feasible. Likewise, “urban farms” in Detroit and other cities have shown that land can be redeemed through organic and sustainable methods and bring fecundity to otherwise deadened landscapes and communities. St. Hildegard of Bingen called this quality viriditas, “greening power,” and it characterizes all of nature, though often obscured or latent. And, lest we forget, human beings, too, are part of nature. The CSA movement brings people into touch with their own farmers and they build a relationship not only with the farmers but with the land and the creatures which upon it dwell. So doing brings healing to the entire economic system, moving it ever closer to Bulgakov’s notion of the sophianic economy “which establishes the ultimate connection of all things.”[9]

Unfortunately, the current economic systems available to us—capitalism, various strains of communism, socialism—are not very interested in the “ultimate connection of all things.” Instead, they prove to be theme and variation on this or that iteration of economic Darwinism, characterized by binary thinking (some version of “us vs. them”) and a restrictive ethos. These are not holistic paradigms, and the grand promises of their theorists and champions are never fulfilled, and never can be. When I was a schoolboy in the 1970s, for example, the prevailing thought was that automation and the aid of computer technology would within my lifetime create more leisure time for the working class, and full-time employment would consist of only about three days of labor a week. This would create full-employment and a prosperous society. Instead, we have automation and computer technology and people can’t make ends meet at even sixty hours a week, while investors and shareholders reap the rewards that were promised to the working class. And the rewards are there. As Pope Francis has put it, while Marxism is wrong, the capitalist promise of prosperity through trickle-down economics is a ruse: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger and nothing ever comes out for the poor.”[10]

Elsewhere, enthusiasts for distributism, a noble enterprise in theory, have raised their voices upon occasion in a meagre but growing choir, but distributism itself has suffered substantial collateral damage in the dialectic between communism and capitalism. In general, distributism has been caricatured as an adolescent project appealing primarily to those attracted to the life of a hobbit. This is certainly unfair, but far too often writers and theorists of distributism lean too heavily on Tolkien (as well as Chesterton and Belloc) and often lapse into preciously styling themselves “monarchists” in a mimetically medieval cosplay. Though useful as self-fashioning or as an internet avatar, this kind of distributism gives plenty of ammunition to those who would dismiss distributism as a romantic fantasy for not-quite grownups.

Aside from this image problem, the challenge for any attempt at distributism, however noble and good, is that it (at this point in history) can only transpire within the contexts of monetary systems already corrupted: and this is as true for the communist and socialist contexts as it is for the capitalist. And none of these systems will ever give distributism room to breathe and grow.[11] Not ever.

Nevertheless, all is not without hope. The recent explosion in cryptocurrencies (such as Bitcoin, for example) indicates that the world monetary system can no longer claim absolute financial hegemony. And though Bitcoin can be used to nefarious purposes, other options are possible. As Preparata, drawing on the economic theories of Silvio Gesell (1864–1930) and Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), has been arguing for some time now, the time for a perishable currency may at last be at hand. “If perishable money,” he argues,

which carries the anti-hoarding device in the expiration date, were injected into the productive fabric of society, it would outflank the banking network by spurring a circuit of its own—one where banks would on the one hand inevitably, and justly, surrender a sizable measure of decisional clout to the productive sector, and on the other, no longer base their investment policies on mere interest-driven exigencies.[12]

This is not to say that a perishable currency would usher in a utopia of communitarian and distributist fecundity, but it couldn’t hurt. Money, like water, becomes rank and fetid when it sits in one place for too long—and drinking or bathing in it is unwise at the very least; increasing its flow would help it to retain its vitality and allow it to impart that health to the greater community. But, on the other hand, the Archons of the World Banking and Corporate Military Industrial Complex would never let such a development, should it happen, flourish without a fight. We already know this. And the armies of Sauron would be nothing compared to the legions at the command of the Archons, for they are many.

For these and other reasons, Preparata and others wonder whether such a hope cannot be realized until the system(s) currently in power finally atrophies under the weight of its own greed and collapses. My concern, however, is not so much with tearing down, but with building up. It seems to me that people can start living a sophianic oikonomia now, however imperfectly realized. Our concern, that is, should be not on the problems that now surround us, but on what we can do despite of the restrictions brought on by the circumstances within which we find ourselves. Our focus is only one: to participate in the sophianic connection of all things and to nurture an oikonomia reflective of it; for this is the household of all Things.

Nevertheless, the daunting prospect of such a magnitude of change might cause even the stoutest heart to quail. This is especially the case considering the “massive resistance respectively opposed by our societies’ academes, public habits and vested interests.”[13] (Can we imagine a NPR segment on perishable currency?) Such a project does not need to be realized whole cloth and all at once, but could be implemented gradually as people more and more respond to an as if approach to our circumstances. If we were to live as if a sophianic oikiomonia were a reality, even while we live in a world and are surrounded by a culture that decidedly do not, the sophianic oikonomia would nevertheless come into being: it would have being, as it already has being. Only, by our attention to it, we would awaken it from slumber.

Indeed, the call to economic activity, when considered in this light, is not the call to domination and exploitation, but the call “to return the world to life in Sophia.”[14] And all of us privileged to have been baptized in the Name of the Holy Trinity are thus called; there is simply no other way. The responsibility terrifies, as an angel terrifies, but we are summoned nonetheless:

I have heard that voice many a time when asleep and, what is strange, I understood more or less an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:
day draws near another one do what you can.[15]

This is an excerpt from Michael's book, Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 22.

[2] Ibid., 71.

[3] Sergei Bulgakov, The Philosophy of Economy, trans. and ed. Catherine Evtuhov (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 73–74.

[4] Ibid., 153.

[5] E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1973), 86.

[6] Guido G. Preparata, with Domenico D’Amico, Flavio Fabiani, Aurelio Riccioli, and Sebastiano Scrófina, “‘The Blueprint’: A Modest Monetary and Organizational Proposal for Re-launching the Economic Welfare of Communities” in New Directions for Catholic Social and Political Research: Humanity vs. Hyper-Modernity by G.G. Preparata (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 5.

[7] Ibid. Preparata’s emphasis.

[8] E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 109.

[9] Sergei Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy, 155.

[10] Andrea Tornielli, “Never Be Afraid of Tenderness” [interview with Pope Francis], La Stampa, 13 December 2013, http://www.lastampa.it/2013/12/14/esteri/vatican-insider/en/never-be-afraid-of-tenderness-5BqUfVs9r7W1CJIMuHqNeI/pagina.html accessed 29 April 2018.

[11] See, for example, Charles Heying, “Autonomy vs. Solidarity: Liberal, Totalitarian and Communitarian Traditions,” Administrative Theory & Praxis 21, no. 1 (March 1999): 39 – 50, especially 48–49.

[12] Guido Giacomo Preparata, “Of Money, Heresy, and Surrender, Part I: The Ways of Our System, an Outline, from Bretton Woods to the Financial Slump of 2008, Anarchist Studies 17, no. 1 (2009): 18–47, at 20.

[13] Guido Giacomo Preparata, “Of Money, Heresy, and Surrender, Part II: A Plea for a Regional and Perishable Currency,” Anarchist Studies 18, no. 1 (2010): 8–39, at 35.

[14] Sergei Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy, 153.

[15] Czeslaw Milosz, “On Angels,” New and Collected Poems, 1931–2001 (New York: Ecco/Harper Collins Publishers, 2003), lines 20–25.

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