A Discourse on Economics
Language, language, language. The English language that has colonized also my mind, has colonized our ability to talk about things with any modicum of feeling left. How can we be whittling our own tongues with such indifferent cruelty?
Yesterday, at a Zimbabwean brunch, I asked an Economist whose grief was sitting heavy on his chest what Economics was, and why it isn’t working. I was asking with the colorful feather in my cap that my Father placed there years and years ago, telling me that Economics is not real. “It’s made up,” he said. I didn’t know what he meant, since being in the Arts, I made things up all of the time and thought they were beautiful or true. My Father is a brilliant professor of Mathematics, and the way he talks about his work is not in terms of whether or not it is ‘important’, but if it is beautiful. Every once in a while he will say: ‘I have discovered something simple, something elegant, something beautiful.’ He never says: ‘I have discovered something important, something reasonable, something that will set things in order, something that will organize the rest of everybody to know what is right and what is wrong.’ Later, when I read Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, I understood better what he meant: Economics was made up not for the purposes of beauty, but for the streamlining of human behavior with the intent of exploitation. Because my Father believes in beauty, I believe him, and because I believe him, I take my skepticism sincerely straight into the hands of this sad, old Economist with a very loud grief tugging at his ears.
I ask him what Economics is. He turns to me and sings me a very long story, very clipped, like a bird with long feathers but broken wings: “Economics is a behavioral science that tracks why people do something, because of… (money, property, despair.) Economics is common sense. Economics works as long as property rights are respected. Property is anything that you can prove is property according to the law. Economics allows special people to be special and those who are not special to work for those who are. Some people are job creators and some people are employees. Economics allows us to distinguish between the two.”
Economics cannot work without property rights, sings this man, with a historical and historicized racism bouncing under his tongue. ‘Property rights’ is the idea that I can own anything. The idea that I cannot own anything is Communist. Communism is bad, it killed a lot of people. Capitalism is bad, it also killed a lot of people, and continues to do so. Capitalism and Democracy walk hand in hand as the best-worst way for people to feel free in a world where they cannot be free and they will die anyway. Life is simply an opportunity to find ways to entertain yourself, and Death is what happens when those opportunities come to an end. Life and death are both meaningless. Capitalism and Democracy will not die, and so they cannot respect people truly, because people are measured by death, whereas ideological systems are not. How can something that aims to be immortal, truly respect those of us bound by birth and death? Immortality is a form of death, since birth or rebirth are not possible. Therefore Zombie Systems eat generations of human beings in order to maintain their stiff and grotesque (non)-aliveness.
How can I ever tell this Economist that a human being cannot own a tree? Steward it, yes. Take care of it, yes. Serve it, yes. Be gifted by it, yes. Play with it, yes. Sit with it, yes. Talk to it, yes. Negotiate with it, yes. Cut it down, with or without consent, yes. But own it? What a strange way of expressing the vulnerability of relating to a tree: the tree strips my soul with its generosity. That is what I feel when I am with a tree I call my own (my very own friend.)
It’s the language that we use, my friends, that sickens me. The language around everything that we prop up with numbers, and studies, and ways of thinking, and ideologies, that simply is Not True. Every word has weight. Words strung onto the necklaces worn by our minds and hearts and souls every day carry great significance. Life is a vibrant and playful beast and Everything Matters. And then None of it Matters when we laugh. When we stop laughing it Matters again. When we cry all of the important things Matter and everything else disappears. When we smile, the important things smile also, and the unimportant things turn into important and beautiful things too. The English language has so many words, and yet we have mass-executed our poetry, decimated the language down to short sentences, short paragraphs, short articles, and a constant drive to ‘get to the point’, to ‘hammer the point’, to ‘make a point’, to ‘summarize’, ‘distill’, ‘in short.’ Is killing language a form of asserting ownership also? Why is it that my heart and tongue feel so connected that when the tongue is impoverished, the heart cries? Who invented elevator speeches, and what for?
The Economist spoke of a human system oriented around property rights that can be proven by Law. This requires that we believe first of all, in the sacred, central orientation of people as the only conscious and self-willed beings in the history of the Universe. Because it requires that everything else be stewarded, exploited, killed, sold, bought, owned, manned, maintained, and enforced by people. Economics is a human system. That is its first flaw. And I don’t say this in order to invite God (a human God), into the picture, but merely to point out that the Trees I walk by every morning find all of this extremely amusing.
Next troubling turn of phrase: “property rights.” A wise man once said to me what another wise man told him: “The Earth does not belong to us. We belong to the Earth.” If we belong to the Earth, if she outlives us, if every creature on the planet and around the planet and beyond the planet is as important and vibrant and alive and beautiful as we are, then how can we ever talk about ownership? We can only talk about relationship. Yet we don’t. Relationships are something that we fundamentally distrust. We scribble and panic about boundaries and healthy relationships and bonds and family dysfunctions and friendships and what is appropriate and what isn’t, but never in a larger-than-human context. Yet it is all of our relationships that shake our lives in their own delightful dances. Ownership means I pull all of the strings. Ownership means that the proverbial watch on the beach that may or may not have been designed by a clockmaker (a man, of course) can be worn on my wrist, can be put in my pocket, can be banged open with a rock the way a child might do to learn what is inside. Ownership is a form of deadness. Stewardship, Friendship, Relationship, Respect – these are forms of cultivation, forms of aliveness.
This does not mean I believe there is no such thing as property. There are many things I have in my possession, most importantly my instruments, that I consider mine, and that I would not simply let anybody take and use or break or never return. It is just that the way that we treat the Earth as a form of dead weight that can be cut up and eaten (and to what end? anything we eat ends up in the toilet anyway, isn’t it?), that does not serve anyone – not us, nor the Earth. And our language supports our sick ideologies. Even when we try to break out of the ideologies, our language ropes us back in. The ways we try to break out of old ideologies, seems to simply create new ones. (After all, can you please just make your point in a sentence and be done with it? And use reasonable words, statistics, numbers, cite some experts, and wear a suit and tie while you are at it?)
When we ask the question of what can be considered ‘property’, we find ourselves in another tight and thorny bramble. Is a dog considered property? Whose property are the dogs ‘put out of their misery’ (another English phrase that says exactly what that language thinks about life) in the pounds? How about a horse, is a horse property? We can buy and sell animals, we can buy and sell land, we can buy and sell trees, we can buy and sell cars and computers and bicycles. How about people? Well, we used to be able to buy and sell people, but that got to be awfully politically incorrect, and so these days, we buy and sell people indirectly: we can buy and sell labor, and within buying and selling labor, we can buy and sell loyalty, privacy, and secrecy. We can buy and sell murder. We can buy and sell obedience. All of these things are considered reasonable pieces of property that, if you have enough money, you can go ahead and chase (in a suit and tie, of course.) In fact, you are encouraged to do so. This is what rat race means.
Property can be defended by the Law, but this assumes that the Law is Just and will always aim the barrel of its gun towards fairness (with very small exceptions caused by human frailties – after all, just because we are in charge of everything does not mean that we can’t make mistakes every once in a while.) However, because only we can be in charge of everything in the Universe, because we are the only conscious and alive and en-souled ones (first and foremost men, but these days women too), human frailties and the mistakes they come with must be forgiven. That’s what Art is for: it’s there to laud and emphasize those human frailties in their frail number, so we can even find them beautiful. The more perfect we become, the less we need Art, and the less Art has to talk about. And because we are ever-progressing, we are ever-becoming more perfect, and Art is more and more unnecessary. Either way, we must only ever look at ourselves. God admires himself in the mirror of Humanity, his Creator.
What of those of us whose faith in human dominance crumbles in the face of human history? Not just because human frailties are the rule and not the exception, but also because human history is boring when it is conveyed through the mouth of ideology: Love is not considered a factor. Only war, and who wins, and who owns, and who takes, and what year they do it in, matters to the story spun in history books. The heartened ability of a human being to spend a day under a tree, or a night with a person who causes their heart to grow, or to simply look at the stars and wonder that they are all so shiny and so present and so beautiful – these do not factor into human history, or into the Law.
The Law is a way for Humans to counter too-much-remembering with the amnesia of ever-changing systems, obscured by a language so mysterious that one has to go to school for many years to be certified in disentangling it. (This makes humans feel extra intelligent.) The Law is always renewing itself, trying to convince people that NOW it is truly just. No, really. Now we’ve fixed it for good and for ever. We added some words that nobody understands. It’s important for the Law to be inaccessible to laypeople, since they must be dominated by it. It’s important that they do not remember that laws from a few years ago said the exact opposite of laws now. It’s important that people keep on forgetting the past. Not just the human past, but the Earth’s past. It will help them forget to speak to the Earth now, to ask her how she is doing. (She also likes to be scratched behind the ears like a cat, you know.)
Language, my friends. It breaks my heart that we have destroyed our ability to speak truly, truthfully, and beautifully.
What alarms my heart even more, though, is that now that we have finished destroying language, we are moving towards the destruction of the expression of the body: now that we have eaten our tongues, we are eating our eyes. Every person is so aware of themselves being watched, our media is dominated by the visual sense, and so people’s faces are changing, their gestures are changing, the way they see the world is changing – morphing into an ideology and a system that makes human beings into analytical systems of twitches, wrinkles, smiles, gestures. Our relationships are endangered by our inability to be ourselves. Please, let’s stop.
Please, let’s find our eyes and our tongues again. Let’s ask the trees for help. They are always listening, and their sense of humor has not been corrupted.