Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Exploring Money and Spirit: Excerpts from an Interview with Jacob Needleman

Excerpts from Exploring Money and Spirit
An Interview with Jacob Needleman

By John Bloom


John Bloom: What is America’s particular mission in relation to money and economics?

Jacob Needleman: America’s mission in relation to business goes back to the Enlightenment era, to the idea—which, in the light of modern history, may seem mere fantasy—that the money motive could be a force that could blunt some of the really violent and destructive passions of mankind. Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith and others made a distinction between what could generally be termed the passions and the interests. The passions were those violent egoistic impulses that tended to result in physical and social destruction. The interests were often selfish certainly, but they had to do with stability, property, possessions, and bourgeois values. To put it simply: war and killing were very bad for business! Although Enlightenment thinkers were certainly realistic about the flaws of human nature, they posited a theory that the money impulse, as reflected in the emerging system of capitalism, could become a moderating force in human life. Money-making was sometimes spoken of as a “calm passion.” That was an idealistic view of money, which formed part of the economic background in the founding and early development of capitalism in the United States.

Another comparable, but historically more efficacious idea, has to do with the play of forces affecting a culture (much in the way that forces operate in the Newtonian universe). This is our principle of the separation of powers in the United States government. You have a benign mutual interference of opposing forces that blunts any particular wolf-like aggrandizement or attack from one part of society on another part of society. Having three powers, the legislative, executive, and judicial, was a brilliant conceptual framework. It is the opposite of having a monarch, a single force that can do things very efficiently, including killing everybody.

Another idea was property. Jefferson and other people of that time wanted property to be the fundamental element in the country, rather than money. It was Alexander Hamilton who really monetized America, who felt that the power of money as an instrument was the more important part.

Property is a very interesting and sophisticated concept. The interaction of mind and nature creates property. You have a mind that makes something happen—you do something, and then there is property. This view of individual ownership, of property, had to do with the support of individual development and well-being. Ownership of property could provide a base of material security necessary for the pursuit of more spiritual goals. And, of course, property ownership was understood to be an effective counterforce to the tendency of the state to assume too much authority and political control. These ideas are among the most important elements constituting America’s mission and challenge around money.

Consider now the negative aspect of this mission, which has perhaps resulted in the power of money crowding out essential human values. Once the spiritual goal, or the moral or aesthetic element of life is diminished, then everything gets seen in terms of money. The means become the ends and money becomes equated with wealth. But money is not wealth; money is a means for wealth in the human sense of the term.

Money is a means, a necessary means, and a useful means. Money is a really brilliant piece of social technology. It enables people to share and exchange even in a very large community, and to recognize the reality of interdependence. So it is, and is meant to be, an instrument of community. Our aim should be to restore it to that noble function.

So, if it’s not wealth, what does money represent?

What is money? It’s nothing and it's everything at the same time. It’s a social promise, a representation of work. It represents the desire part of human nature which is so strong. In one sense, money is nothing, and in another sense it’s the bottom line. Money makes things real in human life. One has to acknowledge that money has this power. People tend not to want to see it that way, or else they give it too much power.

Is that because they haven’t worked on their own inner relationship to it?

It’s very hard for most of us. I don’t know anybody who is normal about money. I don’t even know what it would mean to be normal about money. You would not know how a person is about money until you’re dealing with him or her. You and I are both filled with contradictions about money. I know I am. In this sense, money in our society is a golden key to self-knowledge. If you want to become aware of your contradictions, study how you think, feel and behave in relation to money.

[For the full text see http://www.rsfsocialfinance.org/pdf/quarterly/June_2004.pdf]
© 2006

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