Monday, February 9, 2009


I open the encyclopedia to: "In Ancient Times, labor was closely related to slavery. Victorious nations often made slaves of the prisoners they captured in war. Many thousands of persons were born into slavery." It wasn't until the Middle Ages that labor got some respect, which was around the time of money making its way back into European during the bloom of Renaissance, inviting the birth of the bourgeois who made their bucks transitioning goods from common to elite, subsistence to excess. Pour in some Puritan work ethic, some notion that the streets of America are paved with gold, ripe for the picking (work and ye shall receive money), and you get the modern-day American notion of work.

This week in the zomban calendar has had quotes and other interesting thoughts about work, so I thought I'd share. Drapetomania is a term from the days of legal slavery in our nation, and was used to describe the "disease" of slaves who were "addicted to attempting escape or escaping slavery". The cure was to cut off their toes. If it was still a disease, rather than a quaint notion, I would be considered a drapetomaniac, no doubt.

A quote from Lame Deer: "You can tell a good medicine man by his actions and his way of life. Is he lean? Does he live in a poor cabin? Does money leave him cold?" The words of Daniel Quinn: "I'm afraid it's true that most people are content with lifelong wage slavery, so long as they have a lifetime supply of drugs to deaden the pain--drugs in the form of television, booze, Valium, cocaine, and Prozac." Poet and former L.A. gang member Luis Rodriguez: "Prison is full of entrepreneurs who, in another environment, would have been thriving capitalists. They're the first ones to tell you, 'I was just trying to make money.'" Not exactly off the topic, C. Latrans: "Democracy is different from aristocracy because in democracy we get to vote for the aristocrats."

I love these old encyclopedias from the early 60's, written when America was at the height of power and glory. The entry on free enterprise system, that being American capitalism, states: "Many of us consider this economic system a basic part of our way of life. We wish to see it maintained and strengthened, partly because we have fared well under it, and partly because we feel that all our other freedoms may depend upon freedom of enterprise."

In economic theory, this means that each individual has a choice of what to buy (the seller doing his best to listen to his customers, and to give the best product for the least price), whom to work for (each employer producing the best product possible, thereby attracting the most money from consumers, and paying their workers the most money), and how to divide it up (with the warning that "This way of distributing income always produces an unequal distribution of income because no two individual share exactly equal resources. This fact can lead to serious problems if the people of the society are not willing to accept a substantial amount of inequality in the distribution of the total income.")

"One of the most important problems confronting a free enterprise society is how to make sure that each person can get ahead only by offering more for less" (though it seems like we're now in a mode of getting less quality for more money).

There is even a voice for our environment: "But it takes more than the labor of human beings to produce goods in a modern, industrialized society. It takes land, coal, oil, buildings, tools, and machinery as well. What assurance is there that these nonhuman resources will do what consumers wish them to? ...Self-interest, made effective by the device of private property, will lead to the use of even the nonhuman resources in the way that the consumer wishes them used." And then put those nonhuman resources into landfills; thanks for cleaning up after yourselves.

"The great point of strength of free enterprise, and the factor which promises well for the future of the system, is its record of accomplishment. Under this system, the American people have reached a level of economic well-being never before equaled in the history of the world. They are better fed and better clothed, and enjoy more luxuries, than people of any other country. Free people, making free decisions in economic life, and using some of the world's richest natural resources, have produced an amazing record of economic progress."

Of course, "Free enterprise is also threatened by problems from within. As the system works, it shows some obvious faults. Its tendency to fluctuate from prosperity to depression is one of the more important problems of the system. The existence of poverty in the midst of plenty is another. However, problems of this kind can be reduced. The future of free enterprise depends chiefly on whether the majority of us will be willing to accept the features that make the system work, and vigilant in maintaining the conditions necessary for it to work properly."

It was hard to maintain my composure by the last of it--lots of low whistles and head shaking at all that line of reasoning out the manifest destiny. We now have 40 years of hindsight in which to view the economic American dream. The reason we live under this system is that it put us on top. Of course, as a nation we're a lot poorer now than we were when this analysis was written. We still seem to have a lot of stuff, and our infrastructure and food supply are still intact, so we're not quite in crisis moment, although we are deeply in debt. (In addition to the 1/10,000th of a quarter that you all are paying to support my family's food and energy habits, you and I all owe over $35,000 each for the national debt. I don't think it's reasonable to believe that my family could pay off our share of $105,000. Can yours?) Total debt is over $10,000,000,000,000 (is that amount even conceivable?).

We no longer have a wealth of natural resources, having converted them into dollars long ago. We don't have much in the way of nontoxic water or food. We have crumbling infrastructure, not enough money to take advantage of the low price of oil, and a way of life that doesn't seem to work for many people anymore.

I get the feeling we have forgotten the value of money, and possibly because the value is so abstract, it is no longer meaningful. How many zeros does it take to give a one some weight? We also seem to have forgotten the value of our time. I wish the society in which I lived valued the things that I value, namely community. I wish I could go about my daily life, working in my area of interest, doing the best I could do, and earn a paycheck/way of living for it. No doubt, there are "green jobs" or whatever you would like to call them. But not a lot that I find value and meaning in, nor do I find value in being managed by bureaucrats. I am not afraid of work. I work hard. People thank me. I just don't seem to get paid for it.

I wonder about this economic system that has a high level of accomplishment, but that now seems to have fizzled out. When Communist Russia fizzled out in the early 90's, it was a victory for our country and for capitalism. But now that the U.S. is losing, who gets to claim the victory? I don't think it's fair to rely on an economic system that has its "whoopsie daisies" with bust and boom cycles. Anyone with a lick of common sense could tell you that buying debt that has no hope of being repaid is a losing proposition. It may look good on paper, but the reality is something different entirely. Why do plain old normal hard-working Americans lose their jobs and have a rough time of it, because of the stupidity of those who had the power to make a lot of short-term quick bucks and worked their magic that also, unfortunately, resulted in long-term economic depression? (I think the president used the term "catastrophe".) It's likely our nation will not recover from this event firmly in the #1 spot. Can we handle this? Our empire has fallen.

I'm not a fan of capitalism, nor money. It's a necessary evil, and I strongly question how necessary it is. I participate in the capitalist economy because it's an alternative to eating out of dumpsters and sleeping outdoors in the cold. If I had a choice, I wouldn't participate. I think participating in the economy of community is something we can all benefit from, and I highly recommend it. It's not a model of competition, like capitalism and imperial government (I trust not the government, nor the corporations that rule our country), but a model of cooperation. It's also been called the gift economy, but translating community into dollars and back unnecessarily degrades community.

Caring about people, helping out, sharing resources, nurturing children, loving elders, smiling at people, having conversations with modern-day untouchables (the homeless in our town), planting food and cooking and eating it with other people, adapting as a community to crisis or abundance, taking responsibility for what our nation's social services are failing, entertaining ourselves, educating ourselves--all these things make up a vibrant community.

Community has wealth that is more abundant the more it is shared. It is based more upon the lines of equality--we each have more of an equal shot of being a person wealthy in deeds than we do of being wealthy in dollars. In short, it is the economy in which I wish to participate. I just have to figure out how to transfer my money economy needs into the community economy world. Now there's the trick!


p.s. Thanks to all our friends and friends-to-be who gave us support in the face of righteous indignation. We appreciate the kind words.

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