In June, I’ll be graduating college, and I’m going to have to find the answers to questions like, “How will I pay my rent?”, and, “How will I buy food?”. I am extremely privileged to have been able to not worry about these things, for the most part, up until this point, because many of us deal with these questions all our lives. Capitalism is what puts us in a situation of scarcity, controlled conditions in which we need to work to survive, and that’s what most of us do. Get a job, work hard, pay rent, buy food, and repeat. This is survival.
Not exactly feeling excited about the prospect of entering this rat race, naturally I’ve been thinking creatively about how I can support myself. At the same time, I’ve also been thinking a lot about how much of my money goes to places and people I don’t know. Naturally, it dawned on me the other day: What if my friends and I all just supported each other? What if we lent each other resources, food, money, places to stay, and looked out for each other? What if we traded and bartered with each other? What if we supported each other’s creative projects with our patronage and by spreading the word? Our money, time, and resources, would go directly to supporting and lifting up other people, who in turn, could also lift us up in our times of need.
I believe we can depower capitalism by supporting each other, in the ways outlined above. I like to think about capitalism as a machine we can, together, slowly shut down by increasingly sharing our time, energy, money, and resources. By embracing community support, we can eliminate money from some exchanges or meeting of needs altogether! In other situations, we can ensure our money goes to people and organizations we want to support.
Though these proposals might not entirely eliminate the need to work, they do create an alternative cushion to rely on aside from one’s own personal income. They also challenge us to deepen and strengthen our relationships with our friends and our communities. Think about it - when was the last time you shared something with someone who is not one of your closest friends or family? When is the last time when you went out of your way to support someone? In today’s capitalist, neoliberal society, sharing is hard! Take Genevieve Vaughn’s perspective on the matter: “Where there is enough, we can abundantly nurture others. The problem is that scarcity is usually the case, artificially created in order to maintain control, so that other-orientation [ie sharing] becomes difficult and self-depleting. In fact, exchange [capitalism] requires scarcity because, if needs are abundantly satisfied, no one is constrained to give up anything [ie giving up your time and energy to a job] in order to receive what they need.” In contexts of scarcity, it’s difficult for us to remember to share, protect, and nurture each other, and we focus on doing so for ourselves first. Living and sharing this way is a challenge.
That doesn’t mean we can’t do it. In an article on the gift economy, Paul Van Slambrouck says, “The fact is that we are probably all wired, both physiologically and socially, to seek cooperation and collaboration despite an educational system and social context that works from cradle to grave to inculcate in us a zero-sum view of the world.” I agree! Although I just asked us to think about how uncommon sharing behavior might be in our lives, I would also like to ask us to ponder what we do when we need help, financially or in other ways. I ask for help, and I receive it. A friend might pay for my dinner or offer me a free place to stay, my sister might buy me a shirt, my mom might find me a task to do in exchange for some money while I’m home for break. Despite the capitalist economy’s best efforts, sharing behaviors and the inclination to assist one another do persist in some contexts. Which is why my above proposal - simply supporting each other - doesn’t sound ludicrous to me. I believe in the collective power and creativity of my community of friends.
Creativity is key for creating alternative networks of support, because finding ways to support ourselves and our friends without absolute reliance on jobs and money is both a challenge and an opportunity for inventiveness. In his discussion of the solidarity economy, Ethan Miller picks out this quote from feminist economic geographer J.K. Gibson-Graham: “If we viewed the economic landscape as imperfectly colonized, homogenized, systematized, might we not find openings for projects of noncapitalist invention? Might we not find ways to construct different communities and societies, building upon what already exists?". Their perspective asks us to look for opportunities to work around capitalism, to build on the basic forms of economic independence and support, and to think creatively about how to support others and be supported ourselves.
I believe we already live in that creative age. More generously-oriented systems have existed alongside and within capitalism for a long time. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the internet allow efforts like these to mushroom. Now we live in the age of crowdfunding, KickStarter, GoFundMe, Patreon, Etsy, and others. With systems like these, we have better infrastructure for supporting each other in our daily lives and in our creative endeavors. We are also getting more creative with how we accept compensation. Many individuals and organizations accept payments on sliding scale, utilize the notaflof (no one turned away for lack of funds) tradition, or simply ask people to “pay what you can”. Other organizations accept barter and trade or work exchanges. These creative solutions to the tradition of exchanging money for goods and services allow more people access to what was previously only exchanged for a set price in dollars. They also signal our creative problem solving capabilities!
Sometimes, you don’t even need to pay. In many activist circles, I see and hear the phrase “I want you to have it,”. Goods and services are gifted, free of charge. And why not? In a piece advocating for the gift economy, Paul Van Slambrouck writes, “What exactly did I (or you) do to deserve to be alive? If you can process that question and come out thinking it was a gift that you can’t ever pay back, then beginning a life of greater giving is the only logical and remotely reciprocal way to go. If the most valuable thing you have isn’t anything you earned, why be stingy with all the lesser stuff.” . While this view does, of course, assume that its audience is in the position to be able to give, I do believe that many of us have things to give to each other, whether these be things that can be measured in dollars and cents or not.
What started as the search for a way out of the rat race has blossomed into a hopeful discovery: I believe we are in a moment of pioneering the crowdfunding and community supported vision of a future without extractive capitalism, where we give to each other and take care of each other and generously grant access to those in need. My next question is simply, how can I create this in my own community? Here are my ideas:
- We can spend time with our friends! Developing our relationships with others strengthens our community support network and widens the circle we can call on in times of need. Plus, it’s good for us.
- Support our friends’ creative projects. Buy our friends’ art and music, share our friends’ websites on our social media, volunteer to help out with projects for free.
- Give each other money. If we have a little extra, instead of just going to Chipotle again, maybe we can lend to a friend in need, asking them to pay it forward. We could use the extra we might find in our budget to help our friend pay off student loans or give to a local organization or activist collective.
- Give what we can. Even if we don’t have money, if we have other assets, sharing them generously is a surefire way to encourage community support. Even if all you’ve got is a smushy couch where someone can stay the night, that is something that can help someone out.
- Make goods and trade with our friends. I make delicious bread. Will someone trade me some homemade toothpaste? I’m running out (seriously).
- Expand our networks. Stretch our sharing and trusting abilities by including people we don’t know as well in these loving and supportive interactions. Example: once I let a band of five men from Iowa, Condor and Jaybird, sleep on all the extra beds and couches in my house. Even though I didn’t know them, it was great. They were good company, and they made their beds when they left in the morning.
I know that in some ways these suggestions can be very radical. Imagine if you used some surplus in your monthly budget to help your friend or partner pay off their student loans, just because you cared about them? Interactions like these test what capitalism has tried to ingrain in us; we might feel like they owe us something, or like we’re doing them a favor. But if we recall that life is a gift, and that our well being is tied up in the well being of others, then we can gift others what they need when we have the resources, without feeling entitled to anything in return.
At the same time, I know that these suggestions might seem elementary to some, as we already practice these in many of our close relationships. What I’m advocating for today is that we take the forms of support we do perform for our communities, and up the ante. We can extend these forms of support, whether they be material, emotional, or otherwise, to people who we had previously not included, and also intensify these supports in relationships where they do exist. As Grace Lee Boggs put it in one of my favorite books of all time, The Next American Revolution, "We ourselves must begin practicing in the social realm the capacity to care for each other, to share food, skills, time, and ideas that up to now most of us have limited to our most personal cherished relationships…..We urgently need to bring to our communities the limitless capacity to love, serve, and create for and with each other."
If that’s not a brilliant and inviting call to action, I don’t know what is. With love, support, and the power to de-power,
For more on these concepts, check out links and books recommended above, and look into this solidarity economy map, and this more involved definition of the gift economy. In some locales, there are groups on Facebook designated for gift or solidarity economies, and there are also freecycle groups! Check those out too if you like! And let me know if you have any resources for me to add here :)
In the spirit of community support networks, if you want to support my future writing, I would really, really, be extremely stoked and appreciative. There are a few ways you can support my blog and help me get my message out. You can DONATE via Paypal to help me pay for toilet paper and such, and you can LIKE on Facebook and also share this post with people in your life, especially your creative anti-capitalist besties. Depower!!!
Illustrations by the lovely Phoebe Wahl!