Classism

The Classism of “You Get Out of It What You Put into It” and other reflexives

by Matt
September 17, 2018

Assuming people have a nanny for their kids; assuming people can just get something taken care of “professionally;” assuming people can just pick up another of whatever they break, lose, or run out of; assuming “go to the doctor” is situationally good advice; these are all manifestations of classism that I’ve overheard one time or another.

Here’s an insidious kind of classism: “You get out of this [church/group/political org] what you put into it.” How often do we hear that and not think, wait, that kind of morale booster falls very differently on someone whose material situation leaves them with neither time nor money to give, but who nevertheless really needs the services, networking, or support that church or group gives them?

Hopefully, the more aware we are of how life’s inevitabilities land in very different places for different people, the more transitive our own material comforts will seem, and the less we will feel our desserts outweigh the fact that nothing is really ours.

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Don’t Make Demands on Wage Workers

by Matt
July 27, 2018

So the other day I was having lunch at a restaurant and the service wasn’t good. Non-attentive, took a long time, never asked how I was doing or whether I needed anything. So do you know what I did?

. . . Nothing.

I didn’t stiff the tip. We shouldn’t even have tipping. It encourages harassment and dehumanizes service workers. But as long as it’s a thing, I’ll tip what I can afford regardless of the service.

I didn’t complain to management. That could have gotten a young person in trouble or fired and who knows what effect that might have on their safety or security? Reporting a wage worker to their boss is pretty much like calling the cops on your noisy neighbors. Don’t do it.

Confront the server? Why? If they were occupied with other parts of their job because it was busy there, how would that do anything but make them feel bad? If they were just resting or daydreaming, well good. Wage work is terrible. I have no problem buying them 5 minutes of freedom.

In this world of hierarchy and exploitation, sermons about the “value of hard work” or the “decline of good service workers” are not sensitive to the political and economic realities of our time. My only regret is that I didn’t leave my server a pamphlet about organizing their workplace. Next time.

Don’t discipline wage workers, folks.

Mug Shots and Bankruptcy Proceedings

May 11, 2018
Matt Stannard

The other day I stumbled upon this example of the practice of publishing people’s bankruptcy proceedings. Declare bankruptcy at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Spokane, and the Tri-City Herald will publish your name, address, total debts, and total assets.

They’re a matter of public record, of course, but one’s conscience asks why such painful information needs to be publicized in this way (if there are public policy-oriented reasons for disseminating bankruptcy information, surely there are better ways to do it), even as one’s legal mind may understand the theoretical reasoning: Bankruptcy is the public legal forgiveness of debt.

But as I cited in a recent public banking article over at Occupy, debt itself is a political and sociological invention.

In his 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber chronicles the transition from communal systems of sharing – including shared obligations – to capitalism’s assimilation of all relationships into a system that generates profits for investors. Integral to that process is the individuation (and demonization) of debt, one of the many relationships that are stripped away, often through literal violence.

 

In addition to Graeber, in that article I also cite Linda Coco, a law professor and innovative legal clinician concerned with how debt and financial distress damage us. I learned about Professor Coco’s work when I read her 2016 article on bankruptcy as discipline in the Wyoming Law Review. Concerned with how bankruptcy court procedures construct and reinforce a narrative of fiscal failure, Coco concludes:

The bankruptcy petition codes [petitioner’s] financial life according to a legal and procedural logic found in the bankruptcy legal world . . . [their] financial lives and their identities are properly rendered into a recognizable pattern. Their information is fixed within the grid of the schedules and organized over time in the Statement of Financial Affairs. Their financial life is organized and controlled. It becomes legible in two-dimensional space. It is clearly analyzed and rendered for and in the bankruptcy process . . . a normalizing force in American social and cultural life. The internalization by disciplinary techniques of these dominant discourses results in the collective doxa of a group in which “more and more people must attune their conduct to that of others, the web of actions must be organized more and more strictly and accurately, if each individual action is to fill its social function. Individuals are compelled to regulate their conduct in an increasingly differentiated, more even and more stable manner.’  Therefore, discourses of economic utility and individual responsibility create the standards by which individuals compare themselves to each other, the manner in which individuals distinguish themselves, the way that individuals rank and measure each other, generate ideas of good and bad, and ultimately decide what is normal and abnormal behavior. The social group views individuals experiencing over-indebtedness and financial distress as aberrant. Financial failures are people who have not mastered the requirements of economic productivity and utility. According to the economic utility models, individuals experiencing financial difficulty are believed to be unable to exercise restraint and self-control.

Professor Coco’s article is a profound exposition of an insidious ideological machine. Another law professor, similarly concerned, is Mehrsa Baradaran, whose recent prolific work effort proposes that we create supportive, rather than adversarial, relationships with our financial structures. For Baradaran, this reformation includes a more authentic and class-conscious interpretation of the Bank Holding Company Act’s public benefits requirement, and the creation of postal banks with a mandate to provide credit and liquidity to the economically marginalized.

Those would be relatively modest reforms, if we’re being honest with ourselves. But conventional American economic thinking sees such proposals as pretty much Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism. If such a reconciliation of Americans’ material vulnerability with the building of democratized and compassionate financial utilities is difficult to conceive in the present moment, one reason for this is the not just the ritualized discipline of financial failure, but also its ritualized spectacle. These newspaper bankruptcy notices are a manifestation of that spectacle. They are like, although perhaps not completely like, “mugshots” magazines available for sale (because people buy them) in gas station convenience stores across the Midwest.

“Of all capitalism’s tricks,” I wrote in the Occupy article, “the trickiest is convincing people that debt, credit and currency have an objective existence and power beyond what we give them.” Marching debtors out naked onto the public stage while their debts and assets are called out as dry, existing things is one way to reinforce that topos.

Featured image: Philip Nicholas Bankruptcy Proceeding, signed by John Quincy Adams as Commissioner.

200 Red Balloons

He seems older to me.

Whatever else you want to say about Karl Marx (and there’s a lot to say, he doesn’t actually seem like someone I’d have wanted to be friends with), he had a profound, unprecedented critical sensitivity:

    • he possessed an empathy with the excluded periphery of the material and political world,
    • he was capable of finding the classist metaphysical assumptions, the cruel theology, in conventional assumptions about economics, and
    • he spotted, with precision, the ways in which symbolic, legalistic, institutional reforms failed to address the underlying problems they set out to reform.

Materiality always seems to have the last word, even though materialists have a mixed record on understanding oppression holistically. But you can’t get oppression without understanding how wealth, the generation of wealth, differences in wealth, control of systems of production large and small, contextualize it.

While I won’t defend those who insist that economics always comes first, it seems like the more pressing challenge always is convincing people it comes at all. There is a great material interest in obfuscating materiality.

Just search “Marx at 200” today and you’ll find many interesting reads, but a few that stand out are Andrew Hartman’s “Marx at 200: Just Getting Started” and Nigel Gibson on “why the workers’ way of knowing still matters.” Gibson writes:

In his last years, after the Paris Commune of 1871 when working people rose up against the capitalist state, he became interested in alternative paths to socialism. In his Ethnological Notebooks compiled in 1881, he critically read ethnographers, praising the freedom that the Native American Iroquois women had compared to women in “civilized” societies. It was live human beings and their reason that remained essential – not the mechanical materialism that Marxism is often reduced to. Marx was a revolutionary humanist, open to – and inspired by – the new passions and forces that spring up and open new avenues to a truly human society.

But he was also a materialist, and I think we have to be both and more.

matt

 

7 Reasons Your Economic Insecurity Isn’t Your Fault

. . . 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.

Image: The Panic – Run on the Fourth National Bank, No. 20 Nassau Street. Illus. in: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1873 Oct. 4, p. 67.

Sears CEO Eddie Lampert F***ed Up & My Friend Paid for It

by Matt

Over at Occupy.com, you’ll find my new essay on the fallout from Sears’ financial debacles (the result, among other things, of Lampert’s decision to do stock buybacks instead of, umm, maintain and repair the physical stores where people were actually showing up to buy things). It’s a personal essay, because my friend, a married father of several young’uns, is now unemployed because of Lampert’s bungling. It’s also an essay about morality. And that’s been on my mind for the last several months: the way that it’s really impossible to have a coherent normative or prescriptive moral theory when one’s practical moral culpability is inversely proportional to the amount of money one has. So give it a read and a share, okay? And I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the way class differences fuck up our ethics.

Resisting Prison Labor

by Matt

Black Agenda Report: “Prisoner rights advocates will converge for what aims to be the largest abolitionist demonstration in U.S. history, [Saturday, August 19], in Washington D.C. The Millions for Prisoners’ Human Rights March is centered around the demand that the exceptions clause, which allows for slavery to continue in United States prisons, be removed from the Constitution’s 13th Amendment.”

Since we’re in a period of heightened consciousness about slavery and its legacies, this is an especially important time to talk about compulsory prison labor, or, more bluntly, prison slavery; enslavement of incarcerated people.

I have no desire to break down the components of the moral case against slavery, but must at least partially do so to point out how enslavement of the incarcerated is an especially nefarious kind of human exploitation.

Labor produces value. Prisoners’ compulsory–or even very-low-paid–labor facilitates the production of value for privileged entities (the state, private corporations who get in on the action) and extracts that value, working the body and mind of people at their most vulnerable. Not even the weak justification for the wage system (people are free to walk away and find other work, live in other labor communities) is present in the context of incarceration. I believe this all amounts to something foundationally evil and unjust, which bypasses whatever moral judgment may fall on the prisoner. I’m betting most people reading this believe the same.

Nazism, the Confederacy, China’s authoritarian capitalism, all have slave labor as their material foundations (so does Classical Greece, but that’s another post). That’s the backdrop of Nazis in Charlottesville, and prison labor is another head of the Hydra.

The Black Agenda Report piece by Kyle Fraser summarizes the corporate and governmental profiteering that steers the prison labor ship, and is a good starting read. Last year’s Think Progress piece by Carimah Townes is a longer and more detailed read, definitely worth the time.

Confederate statues should be removed because they are non-living remnants of slavery. Prison labor, on the other hand, should be abolished because it’s a *living* remnant of slavery.

Photo By Royalbroil – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, at Wikimedia Commons

How Racism and Capitalism Work Together in Policing

by Matt Stannard

Municipal and state police forces’ use of intimidating and lethal superweapons is a result of the private, for-profit production of such weapons and accompanying lobbying to create policing policies that favor those weapons. But that production and distribution couldn’t work except over a backdrop of anti-Blackness, and the ability of police ideologists to interpret disadvantaged neighborhoods and the trauma of historical oppression as Black criminality.

Racism and capitalism work together in tandem again in the training of police officers by private training firms with the same material interests as the weapons makers. The fastest way to turn police forces into consumers of those weapons is to teach cops that they need to be very, very afraid of people of color. The obvious solutions are to take control of the situation and eliminate any threat to the safety of the officer as quickly as possible. This imperative, propped up in the consciousness of police officers even if they aren’t overtly racist, must be constantly replenished.

Matt Stannard is policy director for Commonomics USA. 

Photo: By Daviskorn at English Wikipedia – Fed Up Queers, Public Domain

What We’re Doing in Laramie

by Matt Stannard

Members of the Laramie Ecovillage Group, myself included, are in the process of creating an intentional, ecologically sustainable, income-sharing community near Laramie, Wyoming. If you share our values (cooperative culture, non-hierarchical economic communalism, deliberative democracy, commitment to personal and spiritual growth), you might consider reaching out to us and join us in committing our lives to a world beyond capitalism.

We consider our effort to be revolutionary in scope. All of us in the group are, in ways both different and similar, economic refugees. All of us are committed to both reducing the adverse impact humans have on the environment, and practicing a personal, radically intimate (while deeply respectful of personal security and space) localized socialism that we believe is conducive to a widespread transformation of economic and political systems. We share the belief that personal and social change ought to be complimentary, and reject the idea that we must choose between mass political change and local community building as “first priorities.”

We are committed to income-sharing because economic insecurity has killed those we love and has whittled away at our own lives. Our community will share in both debits and rewards, and we will practice carefully-planned scaling of costs and community enterprises to take advantage of the basic principles of economic cooperation. We are already forming one cooperative business enterprise and will facilitate more, aided by the plentitude of information about cooperative management from a variety of values-compatible sources.

Presently, we are exploring many land acquisition options, from community land trusts to cooperative or private purchase. We are looking at several pieces of land and have so far received one offer from a seller. Our group includes legal professionals and experienced intentional community consultants–and several people who have previously lived in intentional communities.

Next weekend, we are hosting a retreat, with around ten guests coming from outside of Laramie, for people interested enough in this project to spend the weekend with us discussing cooperative culture and economics, income-sharing, ecological sustainable community, and how people live communally.

If, in the course of reading this, you have found yourself feeling that this is something you’d like to do, if it has spoken to your deep sense that a community like this is possible, necessary, and a place where you would thrive, you should get in touch with us. Joining would follow a careful and conscientious process and a mutual decision between you and the community. You would need to be committed to becoming a better, more cooperative person always, and doing what you are capable of doing to contribute. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it could very well be for you.

What we’re doing isn’t unique. There are thousands of intentional communities, including many income-sharing communities. But we know what we’re doing will make a difference for our membership, and we hope it will help shape a world that desperately needs this kind of re-shaping.

Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA and a founding member of the Laramie Ecovillage Group.

Poverty and Moral Judgment

How can it be said that anyone deserves their poverty?

What we call “character flaws” are the result of a complex combination of environmental, neurological and cultural factors, plus whatever agency we actually have in dealing with those. To say that anyone deserves poverty isn’t just an unwarranted moral judgment nobody has the right to make, but also an unscientific judgment that misunderstands how humans function.

And, the decisions made by powerful financial actors contextualize where a person making “bad choices” will ultimately land. For example, absent the LIBOR banking scandal, tens of thousands of home foreclosures in Baltimore would not have occurred, even though in the micro-political universe of those individual foreclosures, one could assign any number of individual causal chains as the “reasons” for the foreclosures (X didn’t work hard enough; Y had a drinking problem, etc.).

Even if you say “well, that person had a bad rap in life and they nevertheless overcame their bad luck,” whether X overcomes that bad luck is determined by the very same combination of internal and external factors that landed X in a bad situation in the first place.

Perhaps “economic determinism” (if it’s wholistic; dialectical if you will) is the most compassionate, ethically respectful, and epistemologically justified paradigm there is. Understanding the interplay of these factors can help us build systems that will maximize agency and collectively plan ways to account for all the external factors.

Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA.