Poverty

How to Go Left (& not get left behind) in Wyoming

by Matt Stannard
May 7, 2019

The presumption that the right gets to call the shots is the Wyoming establishment’s greatest political weapon. It has allowed center-right, “moderate” oil and gas pawns to dominate policymaking by allowing the far right and the billionaire class to dominate policy and values rhetoric. Periodically, Wyomingites are reminded that resistance to this arrangement is futile, and besides, we’re all one big small town here, so we best not be getting uncivil about the way we do things (“uncivil” is when anyone besides Al Simpson or Dick Cheney cusses at somebody, or any time poor people, women, indigenous people, queer folks or people of color object to the cultural and material hierarchies of the state).

I’m here to tell you that’s all good old-fashioned Wyoming bullshit. There’s a growing, increasingly vocal, diverse left here, and you’re probably part of it — if you want to be. Here are five ways you can effectively engage the political landscape on this very colonized land.

1. Join (or form) politically independent or transpartisan left groups.

In addition to political parties, there are also independent political advocacy groups that can bring Democrats, Greens, socialists and independents together around common causes or issues. There’s already a Southeast Wyoming chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA is not affiliated with any party but endorses candidates and organizes direct political action around issues of economic justice); maybe you’re reading this in Evanston or Lander and want to organize additional branches. There are progressive coalitions in cities across the state. There are publications and groups like WyoFile and Better Wyoming, there’s Wyoming Equality, and more [I’ll even edit this paragraph to add more groups if you suggest them]. Trans-partisan and multi-party activism gives us strength beyond our numbers and helps us articulate a general left direction for state politics.

2. Support ANY organizations and candidates that push Wyoming leftward — and use your dialogue and solidarity to shape their direction.

If a candidate is left of center but not left of center enough for you, support them and talk to them about why they should be more left of center. If an organization publishes stories about education funding, hate crimes, and LGBTQAA+ rights, support them and push them to cover labor rights and cooperative economics too. Aim to be invitational and not isolationist with anyone seeking to make things even somewhat better here.

In Wyoming, we don’t have the luxury of sectarianism. We can and should be clear about our beliefs and orientations, but we absolutely must find common points of convergence and action in order to push back against the Foster Friessian privatize-everything machine and the incipient fascists in cowboy boots.

3. Stand in solidarity with groups and individuals brave enough to push the boundaries — and proactively defend them when they’re attacked.

The last three years have seen unprecedented creation and growth of an unapologetic, self-identified collection of left, socialist, direct action, anti-ICE and anti-fascist and other groups in Wyoming, and they are out in the streets, on our campuses, in our living rooms, and showing up at the state legislature and other points of engagement. Even if you aren’t a member of any of those groups, those groups need you to be vocal and supportive allies and defenders when they face inevitable right-wing backlash.

Stand with and listen to indigenous people, and with the brave Latinx activists and others fighting against the construction of a private detention facility in Evanston and for freedom from ICE’s brutality across the state. Support Juntos and join their rapid response network. Stand up for the Southeast Wyoming DSA and for the Wyoming Red Star Coalition (remember that the Martin Niemöller poem actually begins “first they came for the socialists”).

There will be pressure from your moderate and conservative acquaintances to denounce “the far left.” Please don’t give in to that pressure.  Those groups are creating good space for all of us, and are taking a lot of personal risks in their endeavors. Be their allies, accomplices, and fellow travelers when you can. Prove to the doubters that an injury to one truly is an injury to all.

4. Speak, write, and share your politics.

A bunch of us here at Solidarity Collective in Laramie produce “Solidarity Wyoming,” a podcast about left politics in Wyoming. We also host public discussions and offer space for groups to have their meetings. We want to amplify those voices that often feel silenced here. We want to see spaces like that activated across the state. Everyone should be amplifying one another’s voices through social media, public discussions, blogs, podcasts, and any other media conduits we can access. If you have opinions, be part of the external political discussion and the internal debates and discussions that will help our ideas evolve and win.

5. Don’t let the right –or the center– define our political reality.

People make political reality when they join together and fight for it. And if every person in Wyoming who doesn’t feel represented by the old elites, who doesn’t want to be defined by underground carbon deposits and their planet-choking extraction and burning, who doesn’t currently vote or votes reluctantly, who’s thinking of leaving but can’t (or is looking for a reason to stay), if all of us got together, we could win local elections, create sizable public demonstrations, form networks of direct action and material solidarity, and support candidates and policies designed to break the hold of ranching and fossil fuels on Wyoming’s means of production–and to actualize Wyoming’s claim to be the Equality State.

Let’s do it. We have nothing to lose but our dusty, oil-and-cowshit-covered chains.

Matt Stannard is Operations Director at Solidarity House Cooperative in Laramie.

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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 director of Solidarity House Cooperative and writes, researches, and teaches about cooperative law and economics. He served as policy director for Commonomics USA, and was communications director and later a board member for the Public Banking Institute.

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.

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.