. . . and why that matters
by Matt Stannard
January 29, 2018
The sobering assessment at the end of 2017 by Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, concerning the 40+ million Americans living in poverty, left a question unasked: Why have there been so few effective grassroots political revolts against inequality and material deprivation in the United States?
The seeming lack of class consciousness is even more surprising when we consider that economic insecurity doesn’t just affect those below the poverty level: over 215 million Americans–which I count as 66 percent of the population–couldn’t cover a $1000 emergency with the money in their savings account. That’s over five times as many of us who technically live in poverty, and it suggests that economic insecurity is now an intrinsic feature of the American identity.
This knowledge alone, that there are well over 200 million people just like us, should help temper the feeling of failure that Americans tend to feel about their economic insecurity. But the cultural and rhetorical forces of capitalism are strong. The billionaire class invests a lot in teaching us that our material insecurity is our fault. That unique capitalist apologia has an illustrious history.
Such shaming, along with the condition of economic insecurity itself, extracts terrible tolls on our health, and makes us less effective in fighting the underlying socioeconomic and political conditions responsible for the difficult conditions so many of us are in. The shame of economic insecurity demoralizes and weakens us and makes it less likely we will join in struggle with others against unfair economic conditions.
So I actually hope that if you are economically insecure–whether in poverty or swimming a few days above it, as you read this short article, your shoulders will feel less tense, you’ll breathe more deeply, and let go of the guilt that the oligarchs and moralists want you to carry. Then, I hope you’ll find the strength and love to become more resolute in your determination to help create a world without this kind of abuse, and with the opportunities that come from egalitarian, cooperative security–the kind of world that, frankly, the majority of the world wants and has always wanted.
Here goes: This is a meditation. Your economic insecurity is not your fault because:
1. . . . wages aren’t under your control
Wages haven’t kept up with productivity gains or inflation over the last several decades. The work you are doing now could very likely have been enough, on its own, to support you and a few others, and own a house and car. Even low-income work could sustain a decent apartment. None of that is true anymore. The elites have many reasons for wanting to keep wages low in most sectors of the economy, including protection of their profits, but other reasons too. I’ll just let Richard Wolff explain it:
Capitalist enterprises keep moving their operations (first manufacturing, now also many services) from high to low-wage regions of the world to raise their profits. Departing capitalists leave their former host communities with unemployment and all its social costs. Such conditions force desperate competition for jobs that drives down wages and guts job benefits. Public services decline as government budgets suffer. Capitalism no longer delivers a rising standard of living in the regions where it began and developed first: Western Europe, North America and Japan. Instead of goods, capitalism delivers the bads.
Wages suck, the wage economy is designed to suck for most of us, and none of that is your fault.
2. . . . capitalism is like a roller coaster
Our economic system is subject to periodic crises. During those crises, people who’ve been “doing the right thing” all their lives are often ruined. A haunting Wikipedia page, “List of economic crises,” traces economic crisis from first century Rome to the present. The crises proliferate over time, with one crisis in the 14th century (it was a banking crisis), eight in the 18th century (including the Bengel Bubble Crash and the collapse of French enterprise on the Mississippi) to twenty five in the 20th century. Every economic crisis devastates countless lives and re-boots generational economics. Those devastated lives are then dehumanized further by public discourse blaming working class and poor people for the state of the economy.
3. . . . capitalism reproduces itself in social relations
Although pointing this out makes postmodernists cringe, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the way a society produces and distributes its goods, and the patterns of mass scarcity that may result from inequality, influence the way we interact with each other vis. institutions and cultural behavior. We can debate about how much, but it seems to me that economic determinism is more true the poorer or more insecure you are, which is another way of saying that scarcity “overdetermines” the cultural expression of economic relations.
A description of the important anthology Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism lists those various relational themes:
how the triumph of the free market obscures rising tides of violence and cultures of exclusion, and the growth of new forms of identity politics. The collection also investigates the tendency of neoliberal capitalism to produce a world of increasing differences in wealth, environmental catastrophes, heightened flows of people and value across space and time, moral panics and social impossibilities, bitter generational antagonisms and gender conflicts, invisible class distinction, and “pariah” forms of economic activity.
4. . . . a few powerful entities could make the system work for us all but won’t do it
Although pointing this out makes revolutionary socialists cringe, a few basic reforms –far from the new paradigms of ownership cooperativists ultimately advocate — could solve many, if not all, current manifestations of economic insecurity. A reasonable regime of taxes on capital and the recovery of the trillions of dollars hidden in tax havens could eliminate the effects of poverty and economic insecurity, if not the root causes. All that would take is a tiny group of Americans deciding to end their intransigence on just taxation–but we all know this is unrealistic.
But please tell us more about how our inability to rent one-bedroom apartments in Denver and San Francisco is our fault.
5. . . . “money” is a construct
The increasing realization among scholars and activists that “fiat currency is a social construct” could not have come at a better time. Economist James Galbraith calls the axioms of Modern Monetary Theory “factually uncontroversial.” Governments choose to order and symbolize their financial endorsements the way they do. Both governments and banks create what can be called money, and the real questions are how to manage that process, how to incentivize social goods and ameliorate social bads and deal with other actors, like workers, businesses, and consumers. As Atossa Araxia Abrahamian explains:
The decisions about how to issue, lend, and spend money come down to politics, values, and convention, whether the goal is reducing inequality or boosting entrepreneurship. Inflation, MMT’s proponents contend, can be controlled through taxation, and only becomes a problem at full employment—and we’re a long way off from that, particularly if we include people who have given up looking for jobs or aren’t working as much as they’d like to among the officially “unemployed.”
Irrespective of what money “is” in either a metaphysical or practical sense, the value of your money is not under your control. When our parents accused us of “not knowing the value of a dollar,” they were more correct than they knew.
6. . . . “work” is a construct
I remember sitting with activists at a community center in Detroit in a snowy January in 2014, talking about their revolutionary approach to inner-city unemployment. The reemergent phrasing was that there’s no jobs but plenty of work. This truth has been pointed out all over the country. Anyone looking around immediately sees things to do–things that would improve life for everybody, things that could make the planet happier, busy work, dirty work, dignified work. Under our current wage-based paradigm, “jobs” are what private shareholders want to extract from us to increase their profits, and whatever public and nonprofit work can be painfully extracted from these powerful interests. As our crumbling infrastructure and shrinking social service networks testify, there’s plenty of genuinely valuable work not being done.
Moreover, a “work week,” a reasonable number of hours to work in a day, the way differently-abled and differently-privileged people are capable of arranging their work lives? You guessed it: all arbitrary and a function of what economic elites want the extraction of your labor power to look like. For this caprice and myth of order, we’ve been shamed for our inability to always do the kind of work they want us to do.
7. . . . “personal responsibility” is a construct
Even if personal responsibility exists, a person can incur neither credit nor blame for endowments they possess or lack. Even if you can trace your financial mistakes–a job you fucked up, a bad marriage, a criminal record, these mistakes fall differently on different people. The late John Rawls caused a stir among philosophers of “moral desert” when, in A Theory of Justice, he argued that people cannot claim moral credit for their natural endowments and tendencies. Sure, Rawls argued, people can expect to get paid well for doing good work, but that doesn’t mean we deserve or do not deserve good things in a general sense based on what we’re good or not good at.
People resist this because they think personal responsibility is important. But, like the foundational assumptions of MMT, the assumptions of Rawls’ dismissal of moral desert are perfectly reasonable, and their consequences are dependent upon what we do with the understandings we have of our moral, material, and political agency. The real question isn’t whether you are genuinely or absolutely culpable for your individual economic condition (have I mentioned you aren’t?), but what we can do, acting together, to achieve real moral agency, which is control over our material lives.
The think tanks and spokespeople deeply invested in making you feel guilty for not having enough money to live are also deeply invested in systems of production and finance that ensure it will stay that way. As we stop feeling guilty, we’ll find new layers of energy with which to defeat and bypass them.
Should you hold yourself accountable for bad choices you made when you know you can “do better?” Sure, if you think it will help you do better. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t. But we’re all part of a larger set of systems. We’re smart enough to understand that responsibility is dialectical. It’s just that we’ve been pushed so far in the direction of absolute moral desert that we are, per Kenneth Burke, “rotten with perfection.” We should try forgiving ourselves and each other and moving forward together to overthrow the existing economic order.
Matt Stannard is a legal and policy advocate for sustainable farming and cooperative economics.