St. Peter don't you call me
'Cause I can't go;
I owe my soul
To the Company Store.
—“Sixteen Tons,” Merle Travis, 1947
The question of debt has emerged as the defining issue of our era. Whether it is students entering their lives burdened by unpayable loans, or countries being called upon to adopt austerity policies that cripple their populations, we all seem to be sharing the plight of the coal miner described in “Sixteen Tons”—to work hard all our lives and die in debt.
Our debts are unpayable. There is much more debt in the world than there is money; and in our system, money is created by debt. (For a short and easy technical explanation, follow this link: http://positivemoney.org/how-money-works/how-banks-create-money/)
What this means is that even if we as a world wanted to get out of debt, it is impossible. And since the power in a creditor/debtor relationship seems to lie with the creditor, we feel ourselves stuck in a situation we can never escape. This debt is often couched in moral terms. We owe because we lack impulse control or can't wait for whatever it is that we want. Our bad behavior catches up with us and we are in a terrible situation.
Putting aside the fact that our whole economic system is based upon convincing people they need whatever is being sold to them, most of today’s debt has little to do with our inability to control our impulses. Young people are told that their future depends upon getting a good education, and they take on debt in order to get that education. When they graduate, the good jobs are not there. Instead, there are trillions of dollars in student debt weighing down a generation.
Similarly, we have not put into place a health care system that covers everyone and removes the profit motive from medicine. The result is that the principal reason for personal bankruptcy is medical emergency. We didn’t let daddy die—is that really a moral failing? (As a dad, I hope not!) The next largest source of these personal bankruptcies is mortgages that cannot be paid, and the events of the last ten years have shown the institutional responsibilities associated with these filings.
Our economic system is based upon the assumption of these debts as an organizing principle. There are no funds to replace our crumbling infrastructure, educate our people, or generally serve human needs while we are focused upon this problem of monetary debt.
The most important institution in our economic system is the corporation. These giant entities not only dominate the economic system, but also hold our political system hostage and define what is important in our culture. The Supreme Court has established, through a long series of decisions, that the Rights formerly associated and belonging to human beings extend to these artificial economic beings as well. “Corporate Personhood” is the term most often associated with this phenomenon, and it has aided and abetted this process by allowing corporations to buy elections and have the same rights to speech as individual human beings (for a time-line of these decisions, follow this link: https://movetoamend.org/timeline). The 2012 decision referred to as Citizens United has become the symbol of this long-term project to elevate the rights of money over the rights of people.
Of equal importance was the 1919 decision in Dodge versus Ford that established the “fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders” as the most important activity of a corporation. Making money, in other words, must be the primary goal of a public corporation. This leads, inexorably, to statements like this from the CEO of Shell Oil, that “moving too soon to renewable(s) would imperil the dividends” and therefore should be opposed. The fact that continued reliance on fossil fuels imperils the planet is of secondary concern. Indeed, the revealed history that the entire fossil fuel industry was aware of the effects of its policies and covered this up for decades calls into question whether it is a concern at all.
An essay by Ronnie Cummings, the Director of the Organic Consumers Association, asks the question “What would Gandhi Do?” in response to the signing of the so-called DARK Act, which voided the state of Vermont's law labeling GMO food, making it even harder for us to learn what is in the food that we eat. On the one hand, Cummins points to political and economic tactics (boycotts, and so forth); and on the other hand, the support of alternative sources of food that are more in keeping with the values we hold (organic, sustainable, and so forth). This points to a larger movement and phenomenon that is closely allied with a non-violent and positive response to the issues facing us as a world today. It is the recognition of karma as a reality that is deeply embedded in human existence.
People understand karma as a form of debt. This is correct. It is the debt that we owe to each other, to the planet, and to the cosmos for our existence and continued evolution. It is a recognition of our interdependence and of our need for each other. When we say “I owe you one” to a friend who has done something for us, or to make up for a hurt we have done to another, it is an acknowledgment of this reality.
The most significant place that this principle is being recognized today is within our economic life. Two primary examples of this relate directly to the example given above concerning corporate behavior.
The first of these is the emergence of Benefit Corporations, also known as B Corps. These are legal entities that specifically repudiate the single-minded attention to profitability built into the C Corp (the public corporation described above). Instead, the B Corp builds into its structure a commitment to People and Planet as being equal in importance to Profit as a goal of the company. It incorporates this “triple bottom line” into its structure.
The second development, and to my mind, the more significant one, is the fantastic growth of the Fair Trade Movement as a replacement principle to the so-called Free Trade Agreements that leave money free to race to the bottom in terms of labor and environmental regulation. Fair Trade is built upon the recognition that the people who grow and pick our food and other crops, who sew our garments and work in our factories, are our partners in these enterprises and that we must act in ways that are mutually beneficial. Fair Trade recognizes the high cost of cheap goods to the planet and to the people who grow and produce these goods. And when we recognize that we who purchase and use these products are also paying a steep price, then we are acting on the principle of karma.
This recognition elevates us as human/spiritual beings. It is a crucial step in the development of an economic system based upon Love, which has its roots in sharing and concern for the other. This is the next system—the one that replaces the monetary debt that chokes and degrades us, with the debt that leads us into work in service to each other. It is happening now, being born in community gardens and worker co-ops; in alternative currencies based upon service; and in the many social, cultural, and economic experiments and institutions coming into being around the world. We are establishing a world-wide web of conscious interdependence that recognizes the value of everyone. We are building the non-violent future, even in the midst of the chaos around us.
Abraham Entin is a life-long activist for non-violent social transformation as well as a singer, songwriter, and dancer. He lives in Western Sonoma County, CA, with his wife of forty-one years.