A big problem is currency. What is currency? It is an abstraction, a unit, a ‘thing’ you get for doing or giving something or give to make someone else do or give something. The myth is that it’s based on labor, but anyone paying attention knows that’s nonsense. It’s not really based on anything, except the belief that other people will take it and give you something that you want.
And this isn’t a function of modern monetary policy or central banks or securities or derivatives or any of that nonsense. Ancient currencies became rather worthless, too, when they couldn’t buy food or salt. The Bible was almost right. Humanity’s original sin wasn’t disobedience, though. It was decoupling the concept of economic value from things that are actually done or used. You really can’t store up treasures on Earth.
When you decouple the concept of value from the real world, you’re making a fundamental assumption that economic ‘growth’ is a thing that exists. You’re saying that any labor put into an economic system stays in that system, is worth something, forever (because the labor becomes coins or dollars, right, and anybody can end up with those and use them to motivate others to do things they presumably wouldn’t otherwise do). You’re also saying that goods, food that spoils and cloth that tatters and metal that rusts and natural resources that are used up, are actually part of that system forever, too. Neither of these assumptions are actually true.
For a long time, human currency-based economies fluctuated up and down a little bit, due to plagues or famines or trade or whatever, but the disparity of wealth between rich and poor was relatively low (the rich were better fed and had more space to live and attendants and slaves etc., essentially. That’s what being rich meant). That wasn’t enough for the rich, though. So they came up with the concept of ‘growth,’ because they didn’t want to work and they didn’t want to share and they understood that power over others came largely from differences in access to things that could be eaten or used.
They created this fantasy where every bit of labor and every resource or good could not only be ‘stored’ in an abstract form (currency) within the economy forever, in pockets or in bank vaults, but also, in the contemporary world, where money could be created by disparate values between currencies and imagined values of paper entities and various rights to things that you couldn’t eat or wear or use if all of this collapsed tomorrow.
But, of course, this isn’t how the universe works. The universe is governed by laws of energy, the most important of which here is the concept of entropy. That is to say that things move, naturally and inevitably, from a state of high energy to a state of lower energy, from a state of order to a state of irreversible chaos (unless you have more energy to put into a system). For this reason, there is a point at which further expansion of an economic system is ultimately detrimental to that system’s longevity.
You can’t ‘save’ labor value forever. You can’t ‘save’ food value forever. You can’t ‘save’ raw material or finished good value forever. And you certainly cannot draw up value certificates about these things, like some sort of fanfic about the physical universe, and then put them into an abstraction to grow more value over time… because… people simply believe it for reasons. Absolute fantasy. Not connected with reality in any way. It’s only been going on for a couple of centuries, and rather than being the eternal apex of human cleverness, the house of cards is finally starting to collapse, to plummet to its lower-energy, more chaotic state. Because the easy resources, the easy energy, have been consumed, and because the systematization of these was based on dubious assumptions about how physical reality and human life work.
And turning economic value into an abstraction tied to decayed energy has sociopolitical implications as well. Dire ones, that we are only starting to understand and experience on a broad scale. Not only does a bag of coins turn the best man into a brute and a tyrant so long as he can drop them into other hands, but when compounded, this effect has apocalyptic implications. There is no frontier left to the locusts of capitalism, to the true consumers, the capitalists. The system has eaten the low-hanging fruit and is now eating itself. And because our social and political structures have, for so long and with such rigidity, been tied to the dubious assumptions of currency as eternal vessel for the preservation of value, a kind of pottery for an insanity of unreality, they, too, are collapsing. Globally.
We need to decouple our social and political systems from our resource synthesis systems. I choose that phrase rather than the word ‘economic’ because we also need to reattach the concept of value to things that are real, things that we can consume or use or that are actually preserved, physically, within a system of energy transfer, which is essentially what an economy is. Art? Knowledge? We do those things because we’re human and that’s what we do after we eat and build a hut. You can’t build those into your energy transfer game, your ‘economy,’ because they’re made up. They’re not real. They exist only in our minds, even if fixed on a canvas or album, within a book or disk drive. You can’t build a twenty-first century, or any other, empire on intellectual property trading and consumption. That, too, is a fantasy that provides only fleeting gratification for a generation or two of takers.
In other words, everything the mighty think they know about economics is wrong, because the entire discipline is built upon fundamental mistakes that humans started making thousands of years ago. It’s not just capitalism that has to go, but our entire concept of what value is, and what can or should actually be done with it. The farther the concept of value is removed from the source of the value itself, either physically, temporally, or conceptually, the greater the instability in the system and the more energy required to sustain it. This has implications for both civilization, contemporary and future, and climate sustainability. Everything has to change, and it has to change within our lifetimes.