This afternoon I’m starting my next series called “Ruminating with the Ruminants: Conversations with the Cows.” I’ve been chewing my cud for the last 4 weeks on the notion of charity and philanthropy.
I’ve been going to various summer fundraisers and appreciation picnics. Here in beautiful Big Sky country with its rivers running through it, the summer residents have arrived. Summer is the perfect time for community groups to invite these people to partake in the community by giving them an opportunity to rub elbows with the locals and to contribute monetarily to the various non-profits that vie for scarce dollars in a county that has only 3500 people in it and is the size of the state of Rhode Island.
I often sigh a lot when I’m eating my plate full of food at these affairs. By and large, the people that run these organizations and those that sit on their boards are dedicated and goodhearted folks. The reason that I sigh is that I wish we didn’t need these charities. I wish everyone made a living wage so we didn’t have to help people get decent food to eat. I wish everyone made a decent living with short work hours and work weeks so that they could spend time with their kids instead of having after school volunteers take care of them. If we had free college education, we wouldn’t need to have fundraisers for scholarships or to buy a kid a tuba. If we banned chemicals and other crap from our crops and our cows, we wouldn’t need as many cancer care groups. If we really embraced community, we would take care of our retirees and respect their wisdom and reward their work years with decent pensions. In a my wishful world, everybody would be at the picnic because everything would be done in mutual support of each other. There would be no classes of the haves and have nots.
We could have a world without charities. So why don’t we? Is it because we are naturally selfish loners who battle our way to the top in order to have dominion over others? Is it then that we feel obligated to give back some of the loot we’ve taken on our way to the top of the heap? Or is this hogwash that we’ve been fed?
Most species are social, says Dimitry Orlov in his new book “The Five Stages of Collapse.” He gets this wisdom from reading the 19th century natural scientist and theoretician of anarchy (non-hierarchical non-state organization) , Prince Peter Kropotkin. Most animal life knows how to work together when it is “for a purpose”. Wild horses know how to gather close together in a gulley during a storm to keep warm or when they have to ford a river. Geese get together to fly South for the winter. And despite the story of “The Lion King”, there are no classes within species. Yes, the bigger cows push the smaller ones away from the hay bale, but they do not have a queen and her court. Pecking orders, says Orlov, are not the same thing as classes. The animal world lacks ” a deep hierarchy”.
Animal species are basically egalitarian, he continues. They use the code of “do unto others as you want others to do unto you” and they know instinctively to put the interests of others above their own. That doesn’t mean they go around hugging each other or singing Koombaya or giving each other medals. The prairie dog keeps watch for predators in order to protect himself and his whole town. Without the others, where would he be? It’s just common sense. Orlov says that the human species too has these egalitarian cooperative instincts but humans have literally been herded into enclosures where there is a definite hierarchy. And that hierarchy tell us what to do. We are controlled by “‘the man’- the one who pays us a little something if we are helpful to him and orders us to be beat up or locked up if we are not.”
There was a time a little over a hundred years ago when there occurred real rebellion against predatory capitalism. Socialism which sought to work within the state to reform it presented candidates for elected office. Anarchism which did not look to the state for solutions and was non-hierarchical was a movement led in Great Britain by William Morris who started the “Arts and Crafts Movement”. Oscar Wilde, the great playwright and intellectual, was eloquent on the alternatives to capitalism. And to get back to charity, here is what he had to say about philanthropy:
We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.
Yes, they were beginning to know it. They questioned the theft of their labor and their time. But they got beaten back with violence. Still the ideas of real freedom, real autonomy continued. It bubbled up in the Russian Revolution, in the New Deal, The Great Society, the feminist and civil rights movements.
But then 30 years ago, the false god, the religion called neo-liberalism also known as Mr. Market reared its ugly head again. Feudalism in a new package made its way back into favor. One of its high priestesses, Margaret Thatcher declared that there was no alternative to this narrative. It allowed for individual expressions of empathy as in charitable giving as long as no one questioned the structure. People could treat the symptoms (poverty, war,racism) but never the causes. No communal expressions of empathy were allowed.
They sold this as the new freedom. It was the freedom of the market place. We’ve been shaped to think this freedom is all about choice; choice in cereals or cars. Freedom, it is preached to us, is defined by our ability to choose among brands. And so we are no longer called citizens, we are consumers. We are no longer personnel, we are human resources. We are no longer John and Joan Q. Public, but Joe and Jean Six Pack. We are our cars. Our quest, our pursuit of happiness, is to become millionaires and live in over sized houses filled to the brim with stuff.
This is not what freedom means. We have got to take back the narrative and redefine freedom. Right now all our wonderful creativity and imagining gets channeled into how to sell stuff to human beings; not in the nurturing of human beings. This is a recurring theme of the anthropologist and intellectual, David Graeber. His latest book is “The Democracy Project”. An excerpt on line is called “A Practical Guide to the Coming Collapse”.
No, it’s not about choice of cheeses or cheesy politicians. Freedom is about being both autonomous and at the same time part of the commons. It is to be unique and yet a part of the flow of humanity. In practical terms, it is the freedom to say what you like without fear of being fired from your job. It is the freedom from needing charity or coming as a supplicant to the wealthy lord of the manor. And so I’ve come round robin back to charity again as I chew my cud.
It’s time to treat the causes of misery and injustice and not just bandage the symptoms with individual charitable deeds. During the Gilded Age there arouse Mutual Aid Societies and Granges. It might be time to look at the benefits of those. How do we structure our lives so that the only time we need to fight is to fight a storm or fight off the cold like other animal species do?
I suggest a slight change to Wilde’s call for everyone to have a seat in the boardroom. Let’s do away with the boardroom. It’s boring! But everyone does needs a seat at any table. Only difference is that the table needs to be a round one. And we need to spend most of our time away from the table. We need time and space to dream and imagine. We need to replace the American dream of working our asses off to buy a house to a dream of living together in peace without poisoning Mother Earth and where everybody has enough. And where we have loads of time to sing and dance. Wishful thinking, you say? Exactly, these are my wishes. Graeber rightfully points out that the powers that be have been murdering our dreams; our wishful thinking for eons. But he believes that “the human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.”
First change the story. There are alternatives to the American dream scam. And it lies somewhere in the idea of an alliance of individuals who agree to act in mutual support. That’s something to chew over.
For a defense of variety watch Henri the Existential Cat:
Further reading on “commoning” and the commons movement at David Bollier’s site .
Excellent piece! I’m going to the library soon to check out Alexander Chayanov’s The Theory of the Peasant Economy. I’m working on E.P. Thompson’s Customs in Common right now – it is about how capitalism destroyed the “moral economy”. Jane Whittle, in The Development of Agrarian Capitalism, wrote that Marx defined capitalism as an economic system in which (1) the majority of labor and the subsistence needs of the population are bought and sold in the market, (2) capitalist workers are doubly free – the end of serfdom led to personal freedom which allows them to sell their labor for a wage and they are “free” of any ownership of the means of production, thus compelling them to sell their labor, and (3) the means of production are concentrated in the hands of the capitalist owners, who employ “free” labor to sell goods for a profit. Whittle’s book is a very enlightening book, because it shows that the roots of capitalism go back much further than I had ever guessed. Thompson’s book, in positing the decline of a “moral economy” with the rise of capitalism, points to the solution, which (I think) lies in commoning. The capitalist practice of harvesting surplus value, per se, is not wrong. What is wrong is in how that surplus value is then re-invested. Is it invested for the benefit of the community or for the benefit of the capitalist? Too often, in my opinion, it is invested for the benefit of the capitalist. That needs to change. Real soon. The goal of commoning must be to establish a new moral economy to tame the excesses of predatory capitalism.