Embracing the consciousness of togetherness, of caring for the whole, of interdependence, is immensely challenging in cultures that are not based on these values, regardless of where we are positioned on the power map of the world. Most especially, I find that those of us living in modern settings are weak in reclaiming the simple relationship between resources and needs. The concepts of “deserve,” “earn,” and “owe” are so deeply lodged in our way of seeing things that they appear almost natural. That so many in the world routinely don’t have enough for their basic needs appears to many to be unrelated to the global capitalist logic within which we live, which separates resources from needs and allocates, instead, based on concepts and on pre-existing access to resources (money and certain forms of power).
Ever since patriarchy, and especially capitalism, we’ve lived in the horror of no longer being able to receive, without exchange or debt, just because we have a need. We only experience it, and only partially and imperfectly, early in life. This is what I am committed to restoring: a flow from where resources exist to where they are needed, based on wholehearted willingness. I want all of us to be part of this web.
In the rest of this piece, I describe my experience of a process – ‘Financial Co-responsibility’ created by Dominic Barter as part of his pioneering efforts to support system building within communities – that I consider a quantum leap in creating a collective capacity for challenging the hidden assumptions that surround money, and resources more generally, and approximating ever better the matching of resources to needs. This process involves two interconnected circle dynamics, one in which resources are pooled and another in which they are distributed. Here I want to talk mainly about the second dynamic, which Dominic calls ‘the money pile.’ Having now experimented with it a few times over the last couple of years, I am ready to share some of what I have seen and learned.
First, a caveat. I have never seen Dominic participate in a money pile. As it is not a fixed practice, but rather a roughly delimited area of research and community practice, there is no “official” description of it. I’ve learned through conversations with Dominic, trying out what I learned in those conversations, talking with Dominic and others about what happened, and including what I learned from that in practice. Dominic describes it as part of the nature of such practices that they are done differently each time and slowly become uniquely integrated with those that use them. I fully trust that there are certain principles that, when applied consciously, tend to move those who apply such work towards more freedom and learning in this area. It’s in the spirit of ongoing learning about these principles and their application that I am sharing what I share here.
Context: moving towards a gift economy
We are so immersed in an exchange and accumulation economy, that many of us find it difficult to even imagine what a gift economy means or how it functions. A gift economy fundamentally means that giving and receiving are fully uncoupled: giving is based on availability of resources given with generosity and willingness, and receiving is based on the presence of a need.
Much more learning and experimentation are necessary to break through implicit conceptual frameworks of how to allocate resources to fully orient to needs. Even “fairness” is conceptual, as is the socialist slogan “from each according to their ability to each according to their need.” This is why I emphasize, in all my work, willingness, which is internally measured and thus unenforceable, rather than notions of ability or fairness, which invite external measures and thus, by necessity, an implicit external authority that will decide.
I see gift vs. exchange as being on a spectrum rather than a binary and static distinction. In this context, my work is about moving ever further in the direction of uncoupling giving from receiving and of focusing on relationship rather than transaction and on care rather than obligation. In addition, I relentlessly encourage and support others in doing the same.
I have written earlier about the giving side of my experiments in gift economy (see here and here). This is still work in progress. In my most recent trip to Europe, where I led or co-led a retreat and several workshops, I used the following sequence to ask for money:
We first named the totality of the resources that went into making the event happen, as well as what those of us who put energy into making it happen would want to receive in support of our sustainability. I invited those present to imagine themselves receiving the gift of the event without giving anything, to release them, at least in part, from the sense of “obligation” to give. I then invited them to imagine what they would want to give if they were not bound by their budget, to help them connect with generosity and to move a bit more towards uncoupling giving from receiving. I then invited them to make contact with the reality of their financial situation, and finally asked them to give the smaller of two amounts: what they are able to give, and what they are wholeheartedly willing to give. (Yes, this is not a typo. I most definitely would only want the smaller of these two amounts.)
We then added up the pledges, and told the group the total amount, giving them an option to add or subtract from what they gave. We then received a few more pledges, and again told the group the total amount. In two of three events, and for the first time ever in my experiments, a little more came in than we asked for, by a small and only symbolic amount. This led to loud cheers, making it clear that these groups of participants wanted those of us who organized and led the events to do well. This, to me, is one more step in the direction of uncoupling.
The money pile
Once the money is collected, the next move is to decide how it will be distributed among those who made requests: in our case, organizers and trainers. Until some years ago, I knew only transactional ways of dividing money: % of net income agreed upon initially or fixed amounts going to this or that person based on hours worked. More recently, thanks to the ingenuity of one of the organizers in Poland, Magda, we came up with a proportionality based on our respective annual budgets, a move from transaction toward relationship, mutual care, mutual willingness to own the risks, and mutual benefit from sharing the income. About two years ago, I’ve started proposing to organizers and trainers that we use the money pile, which is not based on any concept of what people will receive. They’ve all accepted the invitation, and I have experienced it as a huge leap in the direction of relationship, care, and flow.
The basic format of the money pile is that all those who are requesting to receive money collected at an event gather together and dynamically decide how to divide the money. Initially, the entire amount is in the center. Then individuals either “push” money towards someone else or “pull” money towards themselves, either from the pile at the center (which is what gives this form its name), or from what is already in front of someone. The money pile ends when no new movements are made, the center is empty, and all agree they have found the best possible balance with what they have. Because it is a collective process that is often transparent within a larger group, it requires less effort and inner strength for individuals to give and receive openly than without.
For example, while the setup appears to have the possibility of turning into a push-pull “fight,” this hasn’t actually happened in the ones I have participated in, precisely because the movements have been, for the most part, transparent: each person pulling or pushing provides the reasons for their choice, for everyone to witness. Each naming of reasons influences everyone. Mutual influencing, one of the core aspects of community and of interdependence, becomes an explicitly integral part of the process. With that, so far, money piles I’ve been part of have settled. Along the way, I’ve seen learning and individual transformation happen at rapid rates, entailing much discomfort mixed with a wild sense of liberation. In all of them, so far, the entire group that collected the money was invited to witness the process. This added depth and awe around the sense of community. In the end, each time, I felt the group transported into a new world by the unfolding.
So you can get a taste of what this could be like, I want to share some details from each of the last three.
Mobilizing for Nonviolent Global Liberation, Poland
Description: We sat together at the center of the room: six women who’ve had various roles to play in making this outrageously magical retreat happen. We were surrounded by about 60 other people, participants at the retreat, co-creators of what we had, by then, been experiencing for almost a week together.
Initially, at least one of us, a trainer, was entirely confused: since we got what we asked for, why would we even engage in this experiment? With encouragement, she pulled what she had initially asked for and expressed, with what, for me, was incredible beauty and dignity, why she wouldn’t take any more, naming that it would essentially all be accumulation. Another trainer then pushed most, though not all, of what we had asked for towards BayNVC (the organization I co-founded and work at), and more towards the organizers than they had asked for. She explained she wanted them to have ease for future years given how much work it had been to make the retreat happen. This was the first instance of someone being “saddled” with more than they had asked for, a challenge around receiving. It was the start of tears flowing, which continued on and off throughout the process. I then pushed more towards this trainer, in support of her financial challenges. This meant she was poised to receive more than the other trainer present, in defiance of notions of “fairness,” since the other trainer “worked” more hours. I could see the challenge on her face, yet she couldn’t deny the reality of her financial challenge given that, at present, she is supporting two very ill people and has had to cancel some income generating activities.
I then pulled a bit more towards BayNVC. It was the first time I was able to do that, overcoming some very stubborn pattern of ensuring that everyone else received what they needed and “absorbing” costs to BayNVC. That was not the end, though. One of the organizers pushed more towards the second trainer and towards BayNVC, and the other put some back in the pile. This created a state of “inequality” between the two organizers, something that hadn’t happened before. I gave some of what was in the pile to one of the trainers, and some back to the organizer who had put it in the pile. The money pile settled. Only one person, the first one, received exactly what she had asked for. All the rest of us received more or less than we had asked for. Not by significant amounts relative to our respective budgets. Just enough for some to experience discomfort around receiving and for all to sense the freedom of uncoupling. My biggest celebration: none of what happened could be traced back to any notion of deserve or fairness, only to needs. And we all got closer through the openness that this process invited.
That wasn’t the end, though. There was a third trainer who was added ambiguously and very last minute to the team. She wasn’t included because of the ambiguity of the circumstances under which she was added to the team. One of the other trainers noticed, said something about it at the beginning of the money pile, which no one else heard, and then she didn’t persist. This meant a member of the team was left outside the circle of distribution. When I saw her the next morning, I expressed regret for not having made an explicit acknowledgment with her of the choice not to have her in the money pile, thinking we were both implicitly clear on it. We were not, as it turns out, despite the fact that in that moment she said yes to what I said. We then uncovered, collectively, how we unconsciously collaborated in violating the agreements and processes we all had put in place to transcend the individual-leader-makes-decisions paradigm, giving me power that these structures were designed to no longer leave in my hands. I doubt this would have surfaced without what the money pile made visible.
Still not the end, though. In a later meeting, the organizers brought to the table that they received some money from the venue for some tasks they did instead of the venue, and that they no longer felt comfortable, after the money pile of the previous night, to just receive it rather than put it in the pile and distribute it. Then someone asked the trainer who was not at the money pile if she was sure she didn’t want to receive money after all. The whole thing opened up again, with a whole new layer of clarity about the lead-up to her joining the team and the implicit agreements that were made. Beyond this, we also uncovered one more layer of the indefinitely many that operate, internally, against the simple and radical process of matching resources to needs and opening to receiving: the reason she had let go of asking to reopen the process was a subtle punitive response towards herself for not taking better responsibility for the ambiguity of her joining and what it meant. Because of how late in our time together this happened, we couldn’t find a window that would allow us to engage one more time, for which I remain sad.
I am still rejoicing in the huge movement beyond our current-day habits that this entire complex, and sometimes painful, process made possible. We moved lightyears beyond looking at who put in how much time or what is the relative “value” of a trainer’s time compared to an organizer’s. Each iteration deepened clarity, understanding, love, mourning, trust (most of the time), and getting closer to needs and further from concepts.
Working for Transformation without Recreating the Past, England
When I described the specifics of the money pile in Poland to Dominic, he asked me whether we had left an open chair in the inner circle for someone from the larger community to step into. For this second event, we added it. This event was less than half the length of the Poland event, and fewer people were staying at the venue. The money pile happened on the second of three days, so, on some level, we barely bonded. Still, here’s what happened, again starting with slightly more than we had asked for.
Until someone actually stepped into that open chair, this money pile was “normal,” which is to say: extraordinarily open, vulnerable, revealing. The organizer came up, again and again, against her challenge in receiving, slipping into resisting receiving because of some version or another of not “deserving” it, struggling to unbundle her needs from how much time she had put into organizing the event. Time and again she came back to the awe and freedom awaiting all of us on the other side: the freedom to need and to receive from those who are willing to give.
And then someone stepped into the empty chair, inviting all of us into a whole new layer of weaving care and community beyond concepts. “Why did she step in? Anyone could then step in and do that,” I thought, incredulous and a bit flustered. Then the organizer took something from her own pile, which was already beyond what she had asked for, and gave some of it to this new person. And then, suddenly, the sky opened for me. This person has been putting massive amounts of work into the Nonviolent Global Liberation design team, and this has meant she had far less availability for generating income for herself, and was beginning to struggle financially. And while the NGL project was separate from the event that generated the money pile, I was transported into a new world in which interconnection was palpable. I could feel, in my body, that money that was going to her was money supporting the work I am trying to bring into the world. She, and I, and the community, and the event are intertwined, even if so much in the exchange economy tells us otherwise.
Liberation in Three Chapters, England
My last event in Europe was a daylong in London. One of the organizers put in some money to invite a professional filmmaker to film the event and create a video from one part of it. A smaller group than before gathered together. It was a bit of a stretch for me, because the format meant more lecture and less fun interaction than I am used to. We invited people to give money in the same way. I was entirely unsurprised that we collected less than we had asked for, maybe less than half of it. I was fine with it, too, because the success of the previous two events was so immense, both in terms of resources generated and in terms of connection and the nourishing experience of being so well held and supported, that I came into the money pile without any tension or expectation.
The special gift of this money pile, the smallest, fastest, and simplest of the three, was that, in some odd way, it felt the most based on generosity. No one pulled. All the money moved around through pushing. Everyone felt given to generously, because the reasoning of the mostly symbolic moves was so clear and heartfelt.
Just before the end, I noticed that the main organizer, although not specifically moving any money anywhere, was not fully settled. She was still considering pushing some money to BayNVC. In probing, it finally came to the foreground that she was concerned about sustainability at BayNVC, and she wanted to ensure that we were well supported to do the work. The result? I was able to receive the full gift of her care without any additional cent coming to us. It was extraordinary to notice the power of separating needs from actual money. It was also a moment of seeing that ultimately the needs that make the most sense to settle through money are material needs, not relational needs. Once again most of us were in tears, and several people said these few minutes cemented the learning from the whole day for them. One of the clear takeaways for me: patriarchal, capitalist habits interfere with life and relationships by allowing money to serve as a stand in for needs that can only be met for real through true relationships.
The final moment was another surprise. After the money pile officially ended and we went out to dinner with the videographer, Leonie and I, holding BayNVC’s needs together as staff, decided that we indeed have enough, and that our long term sustainability would better be attended to by giving the money we received in this money pile to the videographer, which will allow her to edit the entire filmed time into several videos instead of just the first segment. We settled ever more firmly into the mystery of natural abundance: resources, when shared based on need, tend to regenerate.
I am not surprised that so many people who witnessed one of these three money conversations were moved and inspired. Many of them said they wanted to find ways of experimenting with this way of engaging with money in their own lives. One person touched me in particular when he said he was planning on shifting his family financial discussions to money piles that include his relatively young children. I myself wish to be involved in some money pile or another at least weekly, until I am fully free; until those I engage with are free, with me, to respond to our own and others’ needs; until we are free to receive what we need.
A paradox is built into the very structure of the money pile. As Dominic says, the learning, the transformation, the coming together, the inspiration, are very little about money. And yet, as far as I can tell, it’s precisely because it’s about money that they are so effective. In thinking about why, I can see at least two things. One is that money is such an anchor for so much that is internalized within us from patriarchal capitalist society. The other, for me even more profound, is that this money pile is a clear example of what allows people to come together: the conversation is about a real practical problem to solve rather than an ideological or abstract discussion. It invites people who care about each other already to do it even more fully, consciously, and explicitly. It allows community to form in the process of this profound disruption to so much that is familiar, and in this way brings us, those who surrender to its logic, closer to the world I want to live in.
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Image Credits: Top: Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash. Second: Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash. Third: “Money” by Nick Ares on Flickr (cropped) CC by-SA 2.0. Fourth: Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash