The Toxic Economy
By Rick Jarow, Ph.D.


Alternative career counselor Rick Jarow, Ph.D., is a popular speaker, scholar, and writer who focuses on manifesting intuitive inner experience in the real world. In this excerpt from his essay “The Toxic Economy,” Jarow examines the transactions we make in our everyday lives and wonders if they can be more humane and rewarding. 

The word "economy" has become such a ubiquitous and media-saturated notion that it has grown to rival the Olympian realm, towering above humanity, housing the gods with their powerful boons and curses. Like a monolithic engine that runs on by itself, the "economy" presses forward -- and everyone else gets dragged along with it. It is no wonder then, that the World Trade Center was singled out for a terrorist bombing attack: for it had become the most imposing icon of global economic power, a symbol so potent that its physical destruction will just be another phase in its ongoing renovation. This because the international marketplace has become our dominant social reality. When family decisions depend upon the daily fluctuation of interest rates, and working people need to be trained in the intricacies of accounting just so that they may pay their taxes, we know that we have been colonized by a different sort of regime. Indeed, people enter banks like they once entered churches, and the high priests of finance alone are privy to the esoteric rituals of transaction, the floating of bonds or financing of companies, upon which entire nations may rise and fall. 

Could it be, however, that despite this imposing multi-trillion dollar a day juggernaut, which could perhaps more aptly be characterized as a worldwide roulette wheel spun off center, we still remain bound to the most primitive ethos of the hunters and the hunted; with markets motivated by fear and moved by panic, with individuals and communities desperately protecting their territories, even as they dissolve, shift, and reshape before their very eyes. No one is immune from the laws’ production and the effects that emerge from them: both planned- and free-market partisans argue this, but what few power structures are willing to entertain is the notion of "economy" as a subset of ecology, as the poet Gary Snyder put it, that is -- the economy and its energies of exchange as part of a much greater fabric of natural life. 

Economy certainly participates in the laws of nature, but it is also most basic to the dynamics and intimacies of culture. Indeed, the word "economy" stems from the Greek oikos, meaning a "house" and olkovopia, "the management of the household." The traditional Roman household was said to be ruled by Juno, the goddess of partnership. To live in a house and participate in its undertakings, in its complex web of inter-relationships that embed economic exchange in deep networks of kinship and social relations, is the root sense of "economy." 

Now, for some reason, a very particular form of economy has developed out of this root, typified by the now pervasive assumption that the primary way humans are to connect is by making things and selling them to one another. Sharing by the fire at night, sentimental meandering through cookie jars from childhood, sitting on stoops or in cafes and watching the world go by; these have become the pursuits of the lowly, the disenfranchised: to really be a part of the game you have to keep producing, buying, and selling. And your children, of course, must likewise be educated in order to "compete" in the free-market system.

When we seriously examine current relationships of exchange between sellers and buyers, however, we find that along with constant movement and frenetic activity, there is an extraordinary level of toxicity. Toxins, on a literal level, are poisons in our biological system that are carried through the bloodstream and often lodge themselves in various organs. But they can be viewed as having correlative, metaphorical manifestations in our life stream, for when we look at the energetics of mainstream market-exchange we find a poisoned economic system and a deeply toxic field. 

The Toxic Economy

How does this poison manifest in the social-economic world? What are its symptoms? They are the still the same symptoms articulated by the romantics and revolutionaries of previous centuries (William Blake, Karl Marx, and others of their kind): gross inequality and alienated labor supported by elaborately constructed mythologies of ruling classes, only now magnified by technology and a new "lean economy" geared toward maximum productivity at minimum cost. The "mass-production" economy has always threatened skilled craft-persons and artisans, but contemporary information technology, which supports ongoing "downsizing" and "re-engineering" in the corporate world, may create an even greater transfer of wealth from regional communities and from skilled workers to the owners of capital assets. Add to this inevitable resentment over increased corporate productivity without a measurable increase in employee living standards, the anonymity factor -- working without personal commitment to or from those whom you work for -- and a chronic imbalance bred by mistrust and uncertain market fluctuations (i.e. the price of ink rising tenfold in a week and putting small printers out of business), and you have an extremely toxic economic field. 

This is not to say that things were ever any different in some idyllic past, but still, the neighborhood economy, where you knew the person buying and selling to you, has all but disappeared. The model of monetary exchange taking place within the context of relationship -- the grocer, for example, asking his customer how her family is doing -- has been done away with. We have moved, in the words of Paul Hawkin, from a customer-based to a consumer-based exchange dynamic. Customers operate within a sphere of loyalty, relationship, and a shared tradition and history. When there is a Customer there is a vital exchange in the buying and selling, giving and receiving process. You are sharing your life on much more than a monetary level with another. A Consumer, on the other hand, does not have any personal relationship with the people s/he is buying from, just as the mass-producer has no relationship with the people s/he is selling to. The producer does not sell to people, but to a "market." The Consumer walks into the mall and purchases something off a rack. If there actually are sales people there, they are so resentful about having to work a mindless nine-to-five job that they have no personal stake in, spending eight hours a day under artificial lights and the rest, that they transmit their resentment to you: whether through lack of care or knowledge about a product, lack of courtesy, or any sort of relational skills. Anyone who has had to wait at the "information" desk in a department store knows this scenario all too well, what to speak of dialing a company for product information and spending the next fifteen minutes of your life trying to navigate through a series of pre-recorded messages without even being able to speak to a human being?

And then there is the phenomenon of on-line purchase which can allow you to eliminate human contact altogether; ultimate convenience, and full-ranging power to click onto anything, but at what price? If it is sitting home alone and being the ruler of your own world, will it suffice? The issue I am driving at here is not necessarily one of technology usurping humanity, for new modalities of exchange and communication can be quite creative and stimulating: they are not at all bad in themselves. Rather, I am concerned with the unconscious utilization of materials and resources to avoid the more fundamental questions of how we may relate to one another. 

When one compares the bazaars in India and the Middle East with their bustling life, myriad of smells, and networks of relationships to the modern mall -- brick and mortar or click and mortar -- one cannot help but be depressed. Anyone who has ever been to one of these places, where customers are treated with hospitality and care, or even where bargaining is a ritual part of the exchange, cannot easily return to the faceless world of "your credit card number and your mother's maiden name." But under the continuous pressure to produce and consume, too many individuals dare not consider that the more they purchase, the more they are in need, because there is little satisfaction left in the act of buying or selling itself. Imagine buying a brand-new remarkable something or other with all kinds of features and attachments, and not being able to tell anyone about it! Is it not the contact, the human energetic exchange that we actually want, crave, and cannot live without? And in the absence of this, how many of us have become walking junkyards, carrying our "stuff" around, not because we want to, but because we do not know what else to do?

An Alternative Plan

The slogan "think globally act locally" sounds noble enough, but in a global network where localities are affected by huge and often overwhelming forces, it may appear to be a naive one. One may observe, however, a marked wisdom in the particular when it is lifted out of isolation and seen in its larger context. In the mechanistic worldview, a broken machine could simply be fixed. In a post-modern interconnected world, a broken machine may indicate a greater imbalance. Rather than trying to fix the machine through government, big business, religion, education, or otherwise, one might investigate initial assumptions about objectifying the world and presuming the dominance of the human over the natural. The more honest and attentive the investigation, the deeper the potential for genuine transformation: good things rise up from the bottom.

The American artist Ani DiFranco, in this regard, who has refused the sponsorship of major record companies in order to maintain control over her material, has written "If you don't want to work for `the man,' you need an alternative plan." An alternative plan can take many forms, but some consistent trajectories may be helpful. Here are a few that myself, friends, and colleagues have been working with in "manifestation groups" over the past few years.
It is not results or products that are important: let this be the first guideline. It is the process you are in that reflects who you are, where you are going, and what legacy you will leave behind. From the eco-Buddhist point of view of co-dependent origination (paticcaa-samuppada) there can never be a finalized ideal, a golden age of past or future, a fixed and stable goal. The future resonates with our current movement and is changing with every step we take. So let us pay attention to process over product: if the process is authentic, the product will be likewise -- the exact inversion of the Machiavellian equation. Two interesting exercises come to mind here: Try to go through an entire day without complaining, and refuse to put more than three items on your daily "to-do" list. These kinds of "exercises" or "experiments," simple as they may appear to be, directly challenge our productivity compulsions as they allow us to more thoroughly examine our process. What would it be like to neither verbally nor mentally accuse our partner, service providers, or even the weather for not meeting our assumptions about how things should be? (I remember how amazed and inspired I was when I heard that the poet Walt Whitman was never heard to even complain about the weather.) And what would it be like to do just three things a day really well, being fully present with their depth, rather than turning every day into some sort of race? 

Are our exchanges with others mutually energizing? This is the second consideration. Does our coming and going, buying and selling, giving and receiving, partake of a regenerative mentality? This alone can recreate economic culture, the culture of exchange, via the heart. Karma, which translates literally as "action," is exchange itself, because every action is ultimately a transaction. And it is in the realm of exchange where we "work out" our karma. It has occurred to me, on occasion, that the entire market edifice is just an oblique way of purifying our relationships with one another. If we are winning at others’ expense, or leaving entire population segments disenfranchised, we are breeding resentment, anger, and potential violence. If we are losing at others’ expense, we are doing exactly the same thing. Nietzsche, in his denunciation of the ascetic ideal, was one of the first Europeans to articulate the fact that "losing" (i.e., martyrdom and self-sacrifice) is just as imbalanced as "winning," for both strategies create dominant-dependent situations. Nietzsche, in reaction, reverted back to a "win/lose" paradigm of "Will to Power," but only that which is mutual can be regenerative and therefore non-toxic. 

The Chinese ideogram for "humanity," or "benevolence," jen, exemplifies the energy of mutual reciprocity with two lines supporting a third. Mutual reciprocity threads the needle between capitalist individualism -- promoting the individual at the expense of society -- and socialist collectivism -- promoting the state at the expense of the individual. "Isms," themselves, tend toward losing situations since they seek to create adherents as opposed to promoting interchange and creativity. 

The terrible fear of creating our own lives in freedom can be met through mutuality. When there are variegated models, mentors, colleagues, and a plurality of sanctioned and accepted options to choose from, creative expression and innovation can emerge without being trampled upon. The pluralistic model, which is the third non-toxic point of focus, is different from the relativistic one. The relativistic model denies any hierarchical value, where the pluralistic one accepts them within their specific contexts. One context does not need position over another. As James Hillman states in his article on the modern city, too much attention has been given to the mayor. If there are a good waterworks commission, parks department, arts council, and chamber of commerce, innovation and expansion can still flourish. 

The tyranny of the priest and king will linger on, in one form or another, to the degree that the individual impulse is not respected and given its due. The toxicity of mindless production and consumption will remain in force as long as the community impulse that seeks to celebrate and share existence is not galvanized. An alternative plan lets go of "the man" and opens to the individual, lets go of a single history and opens to a multi-versed community, be it through self-employment, working with and for people we actually respect and support, developing non-consumerist strategies such as communal living or voluntary simplicity, or going into the global marketplace as genuine warriors for change. By working to transform toxic encounters, the global marketplace can become a cosmic one. And what to do with those terrible fanged demons that pile up information, weapons, and the rest? When the celebration gets strong enough, invite them onto the dance floor. After all, everyone loves to party, and if enough people start to actually have fun, the toxic part of ourselves just may cash out of its game and join in. 

Courtesy of Rick Jarow, Ph.D.

Rick Jarow’s Website

Books by Rick Jarow, Ph.D.:
Creating the Work You Love: Courage, Commitment and Career
In Search of the Sacred: A Pilgrimage to Holy Places

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