Often I feel the biggest hurdle to implementing alternative economic models is belief that the rules of our economy are laws of nature; universal, immutable. If we step out of and away from the power structure, we find indications that the myths of late stage capitalism can fade rapidly. Though capitalist market ideology holds bright center stage, it is surrounded by a patchwork of alternative belief systems that better explain the human condition. We can view social movements as these alternative belief systems wrestling with capitalism as it encroaches deeper into our commons. By revisiting the values that shaped my beliefs, I find ordinary family wisdom a rich source for passionate alternatives, more than any radical text. My conclusion is to draw strength in these quiet truths that operate just outside the monolith.
My earliest experiences with market economics were not as cosmic forces that shaped every fiber of my life, but rather as something “out there” I had to participate in briefly before returning home. I attribute a lot of this to my parents’ experiences as wage laborers; my father worked his entire career at a paper mill in Northern Minnesota, where the social contract was easily understood—work long days and receive good pay. By the time I was growing up, my mother left her secretarial work to manage our household. In her kitchen, economics was less, “How can we turn this dollar into more dollars?” and more, “How can we stretch this dollar to meet the needs of our family?” My father’s wages did not absolve him of housework or put him in any place of honor—his days off were spent grocery shopping, doing his share of the cooking and cleaning. When the work was done, my parents both stopped to enjoy a beer. Without words, this instilled in me an understanding that wages were what you earned for doing work out there, but this was only a small subset of all the types of work required to build a life.
A college class, Economic Anthropology, gave me a semester to articulate this intuition. Through close readings of Adam Smith, Bentham and Levy, I saw markets described historically as special places delineated within a society, literally a town square where people intermingled to barter and exchange. These special places were only possible where other hierarchical needs of safety had previously been met; city walls, a justice system to deter murder and theft, scales and currencies. Contrast this with the popular conception of market capitalism, that would claim it is the Invisible Hand that draws people together, that people first bartered and then built cities, that only after buying a lemon did they set up courts of justice.
In my house we didn’t play lemonade stand, to watch a dollar worth of lemonade like magic turn into many dollars. Instead, I was assigned paper routes, lawn mowing, and snow shoveling; I learned it was my sweat that turned into dollars (a much less magical process). When I protested that I didn’t even want money, my parents explained it wasn’t just about money—there were old ladies in our neighborhood who needed their sidewalks shoveled, and my service was more a social obligation than market capitalization. I point to this as the source of my lifetime resistance to market worship; in my world, the rules of society are built and re-built around kitchen tables. It is the social obligation to shovel an old lady’s sidewalk that makes us a community, remuneration just greases the wheels.
This passive observer attitude extends from my views on market power to the way I understand the movement of history. I was fortunate to grow up with many great-grandparents. One of my great grandmothers reflected in trying times, “The pendulum swings both ways, and it has to swing all the way one way before it swings back.” Within this maxim, which lent strength through the Depression, world war, Civil Rights, Vietnam, Watergate, and all the boring days in between, rest a few beliefs that run radically counter to public discourse. First, the suspicion that progress may not be the natural sweep of history. While many pragmatic activists concede progress is often “two steps forward, one step back,” my great grandparents described their life experience as two steps left, two steps right.
They referenced this maxim in times of crisis and social movement. When things are bad, why do they keep getting worse? Because the pendulum has to swing all the way one way before it swings back. In their maxim lies a skepticism of power. Essentially, those in power–regardless of possible good intentions at their onset–get corrupt, take things too far, and society brings them back to earth. A chapter from Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth has stuck with me since I read it in high school. The lord of a village in China grows decadent, until a peasant uprising smashes into the palace and takes everything of value. The peasant-farmer protagonist observes this as the natural pattern of things, that lords rise, grow rich, too rich, until at last the peasants rise up and take back to the earth what was long extracted from them. In the end, the protagonist becomes the new lord, becomes corrupt, and the cycle repeats. For activists this view may seem cynical, but the promise of spring renewal is what gets farmers (and commuters) through the long winter. This is the voice of Benjamin the Donkey from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, who at every disaster reminds us, “Donkeys live a long time. None of you has seen a dead donkey.” We do not have to look deep into our past to realize there is nothing new or alien in today’s struggle. We can draw strength when we feel numb, knowing this is the way of things, and that we always get through it.
Thank you for the generous feedback!
There are many directions your thoughts took me. The path I want to follow in my reflection, what feels like a cohesive extension of the original post, is to explore implications and advice from my great-grandparents. My original post hands down wisdom as an observed, passive understanding of the world. I believe there is strength in the conviction that the world is large, and largely immutable. It implies a primacy of personal transformation as the road to change. MLK Jr. invoked self-purification as a first necessary step to changing the world, not only living as alternative models but internally steeling ourselves against the intoxicating corrosion we set out to change. Impatient agents may find this advice a “what-aboutism,” always slowing us down, always pausing to look inward, instead of moving the ball forward. But the pendulum’s momentum is fueled by the performance of hypocrites, and seeds the reversal of their efforts. The unbearably slow work of individuals in community creeps forward like a glacier, perhaps inches over a lifetime, but contains the power to grind mountains into dust. (I want to affirm here Kate Jenkins’ advice that “Change doesn’t take time, it takes action.” My assertion is that the focus of that action must happen internally and in our immediate communities.)
In part inspired by @andrewdoss230218 post blurring the lines of the singular, I’d expand my definition of the individual to include my immediate community. In other words, the advice of my great-grandparents is to live my values in community. If my work and my worth are defined by how I act, then a huge component of my life is how I act with others. This defines my community as the collection of individuals I am in daily exchange with. With this insight, I can reconcile the economies of home, neighborhood, and employment. My tightest community is those I share a household with, where labor and feeling is intensely shared. This belief explains why I’ve always judged activists and leaders by the legacy of their home life. Beyond the home, my parents put high value on engaging our immediate neighbors, those old ladies whose sidewalks needed shoveling. The reciprocity may have been instigated by home-baked cookies, or rhubarb pie, a dusting of the attic or trading gossip in the alley. Once set in motion, it was constantly maintained by a sharing of resources. Our community re-affirmed by gifts, acts of service, and when money was present, it was as a medium of exchange, a (welcome) substitute for rhubarb pie. This is where the sense of obligation to our community is rooted; an act of omission equally defines the boundaries of community. This is why my mother always forced us to go play with the kid who moved in down the block; engaging them threaded them into our quilt. Growing up, I could feel the lines drawn around neighbors excluded; those who never came out of their house, never traded gossip, didn’t keep up with the maintenance of their home and turned down offers to assist with it. These patterns of alienation (like reciprocity) are quick to take hold, and difficult to reverse. The challenge issued from my great-grandparents, then, is to inspect my choice of community. Who am I in daily exchange with? Are those exchanges positive? Do they feel transactional, or reciprocal? Does this network align with who I proclaim my community to be? Who am I leaving out? With this lens, I see how my personal transformation ripples into social change, removes the frustratingly abstract elements of “community” and instead defines it by what is within reach.