How to Have Power Over Power – Part I: The Psychology of Money and Shame

Editor’s Note: This is part I of Z’s 3 part essay, How to Have Power Over Power.  To read Part II click here, and for Part III click here.

Z, Contributing Writer
Waking Times

A hero is not a champion of things become, but of things becoming; the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo. -Joseph Campbell

The earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed. –Mahatma Gandhi


When money is the ritual of a society, or the opiate of the masses, power becomes objective and corrupts absolutely, and the subjective is forgotten. But we cannot forget that we are both objective and subjective creatures. They are self-similar within us. In order to restore the proper equilibrium, we must live moderately (despite money) and practice compassion (in spite of money). Doing so flips the power dynamic, allowing prestige to trump greed, community to trump commerce, and liberty to trump prosperity.

The Psychology of Money:

Money has an almost magical effect upon us. Most of our lives revolve around making money. It has become a cultural condition, a ritual en masse. There is no denying its omnipresence in all matter of things. It effects, and affects, everything that we value. It is appalling the complete and utter dominance money has over our lives. And yet there is almost nothing we can do about. In order to understand why this is, we must first understand how the brain relates to reality.

In the beginning, the human brain has no mechanism to recognize what is relevant or what is not.

Relevance is an environmental/cultural phenomenon. It is a cultural condition. Money is a good example of this. Money is only an invention. If one does not assign any value to money then it has none, simple as that.

All value is actualized through imagination alone. We all agree, as a society, that the invention of money represents the exchange of goods, and therefore it has value. This is fine, but only if we understand that it is an illusion in the first place; that it is an abstraction of an abstraction. It’s when we lose sight of this fact that things go awry. It is when we lose sight of value as truth that things become unhealthy.

Truth-as-value trumps truth-as-certitude, always. The problem with money being the preeminent modern-day ritual is that it is based upon truth-as-certitude. Our culture, over time, has conditioned its people to believe, with almost absolute certainty, that money has absolute value. It’s almost as if we have forgotten, as a collective, that only that which we deem as valuable has any value. In reality the only absolutes are natural, cosmic, and universal absolutes, and as long as the laws of humankind coincide with these absolutes then there can be a healthy balance between humankind and nature. As it stands, however, mankind’s fixation with the ritualization of money is not in accord with these absolutes, and so we flounder in excessiveness and disequilibrium.

Having more than what we need has become almost pathological in our modern civilizations. It isn’t our fault, really. We evolved this way as a species. We think we need more than we actually need because of a basic fear of not having enough during “lean times”. It really is that simple. But just as we must fight the urge to eat too much, we must also fight the urge to horde too much. We do this in order to maintain balance and to remain healthy. What’s healthy is having a proper orientation between culture and the natural order of things (nature and the cosmos).

  • In regards to money, as a symbol for the distribution of goods, we don’t have a proper orientation between culture (economy) and nature (ecology). We’ve gotten to the point where the economy does not match ecology, or in other words, money does not match resource. This is a gross imbalance that can only lead to the inevitable collapse of any economic system which upholds it, and continues to go about “business as usual” like nothing is wrong. Unfortunately this “economic system” is the current monetary-based system.

    David Brooks pinpointed the issue perfectly, saying, “If the fathers of classical economics knew what we know now about the inner workings of the human mind, there is no way they would have structured the field as it is.” He goes on further to say, “Rationality is bounded by emotion. People have a great deal of trouble exercising self-control. They perceive the world in biased ways. They are profoundly influenced by context. They are prone to group-think. Most of all, people discount the future; we allow present satisfaction to blot out future prosperity.”

    Here’s the thing: Moderation is the key, but nobody knows how to use the key. It’s a matter of the need for immediate gratification on the one hand and rampant immoderation on the other. What we need is a new ritual. We need a ritual that trumps the ritual of money and the over-consumption that comes from it. We need a way to diffuse, to reciprocate, and to moderate immoderate wealth. And then we need to somehow make this an aspect of our psychological makeup. But how do we do this?

    The Psychology of Shame:

    Live simply so that others may simply live. -Elizabeth Seaton

    Faced with the tragedy of a dying world, the simplest lifestyle does tend to be the best. The shame we feel in our excessive lifestyles is directly related to the ubiquity of our wastefulness. When a culture over-consumes it’s only natural that it is also overly wasteful. There is shame in this, but it is not enough shame to cause any fundamental change within us. In order to trigger enough shame, to make a change, it needs to strike at the heart of the cultural paradigm. In our culture’s case this “heart” is money. Living simply asks that we change our center of gravity from inert consumption to proactive adaptation. It asks that we become local world-movers as opposed to global world-watchers. Once basic needs are met our desire to accumulate more “stuff” actually undermines our happiness. The more “stuff” we have the more shame we have (albeit subconscious) for being so excessive.

    In order not to be shameful, in an excessively immoderate culture, we are asked to shave the heaviness from our heart. We do this by shedding the incongruous and superfluity on an individual level, so that we can create healthy change on a cultural level. Living moderately leads to living deliberately. Shedding that which is superfluous helps us to focus on making sense out of human excessiveness. Once excess has been shaved away, simplicity is revealed, and we are then free to allow elegance to enter into our lives, realizing that just as brevity is the soul of wit, elegance is the soul of acumen.

    In Transforming Militaristic Inertia into Real-world Courage I wrote, “If we are to be courageous, we must transform the mechanism by which we experience shame through acts that transcend shame itself.” As it stands we have no adequate cultural shame regulators in place for greed. In fact, the shame regulators that are in place are backwards. We’re actually made to feel shameful for not making more money than we need. Thus we live in a society that hordes and stockpiles and is excessive in all manner of things.

    It is extremely difficult to unlearn what culture has conditioned us into believing. Over a lifetime, culture itself becomes a kind of devil on our shoulder, whispering in our ear, “Get as much as you can. Buy more stuff. Horde; horde; horde! Stockpile; stockpile; stockpile! Don’t stop until you have it all!” And then there is the internal judge, “charging” us with incompetence and a life-sentence of inadequacy if we don’t make enough money, if we don’t give into the cultural cliché of over-the-top consumerism.

    Shame is a cultural mechanism. The fear of not being good enough is an almost debilitating thing no matter what culture one is brought up in. In a world where the common motivation is the cliché of, “Get rich or die trying,” one is further left with a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness. We are told to be prideful regarding making money. In short, we are conditioned to feel pride in being greedy. Like Carol Pearson said, “Our culture has used guilt and shame as the primary means to motivate people to be good by its standards, so it is no wonder that people feel guilty, and that they need to atone –or sometimes to have someone else atone for them.”

    But what is this standard of good our culture holds us to? It is quite simply this: earn as much as you can despite anybody or anything else. This leads to a world of individuals who over-consume, overindulge, and overdo almost everything at the expense of everything else. People living in such a world have no understanding of the relationship between things. So how can they have any understanding of what power is, let alone how to get power over power?

    Read Part II here, and Part III here.

    About the Author

    Z, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.  His recent works can also be found at Z’s Hub.

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