"In reality, everybody can't make it. If a guy makes a million dollars, he can do so only because another thousand people are making $3,000 a year."
- Scott Farwell, quoted in Studs Terkel's Hard Times
* * *
It has been troubling me for some time. I root and rumble through these ideas trying to grab hold of something that I can show you, give to you to play with, to consider. I've been doing this long enough now to know when there are changes coming, when there is a shift in the ideas and in the writing that I could never have planned for. It begins when something troubles me for some time.
During my stint at Columbia College Chicago getting my futile MFA in in fiction writing and then in the not futile years I taught there, an idea took root that I swear by to this day: throw away your ideas and see which ones are strong enough to come back and insist on being heard. It is a tonic to hubris and believing one's shit does not stink. It is the easiest of tasks to write lists of ideas to be turned into projects. It is just as easy to begin those projects. It is entirely different to complete them. Here's part of the reason why: we never tested the idea, risked losing the happiness/challenge the first blush afforded us and as that first rush faded there was nothing underneath to sustain the effort.
Or so it has been with me.
So, something has been troubling me for some time and is making its way into the conversation, in fact has been hovering over it, occasionally flashing in and out of the work, but now wants a place at the table. It is this: if one is to unfuck one's life then by needs be one must talk about money and the hold it has on this conversation.
Except, this isn't a polemic for or against any economic system, but rather is a polemic in favor of what each of us needs to live unfucked: authority, autonomy and cooperation.
* * *
It is a lie told so often it is gospel: anyone can make it in America. Hard work is rewarded. Upward mobility is routine. Self-fulfillment is found in the market. Build a better mouse trap and the world's your oyster. Fuck, does anyone really believe that anymore? It is a pernicious myth that enslaves us to a lifetime of debt, of enriching others through our labor, of believing the crumbs cast off from the table are a just reward. Listen, capital accrues to those with capital through the theft of labor. Money is not made off of goods, but the labor to craft and deliver those goods.
And, you know, whatever. The machinations of the monied are their own business, but what I do care about is how their operating story (opportunity! hard work!, mortgages! credit scores!) permeates everything we say and do. Take a minute and listen to the incessant drone of commercials, the endless marketing of things no one needs. Listen to the language. Listen to how stupid you are presumed to be. Listen to the easy stereotypes, the maddening jingles, the sense of unease and want you experience. Listen to that story and then listen to your story. Is there any place they overlap? Is there anything in you, deep down in the heart of it all, that finds its expression in the story being told over and over to you? Buy this. Be that. Do this. Vote this way. Protest the vote. Donate to the cause. All of it moves out from the same premise: the best way to organize human life is via the marketplace, albeit a marketplace that is rigged to privatize reward and socialize risk.
If you're fucked, how much of it has to do with the work you do, the money you earn, how you treat the money you earn, the dreams you exchanged for the money you earn, the debt you service and the lifestyle you've grown accustomed to or aspire to having? How many zeroes at the end of your check do you need to be happy?
I'm not hating on money, or earning it or wanting more of it. I am hating on how this is presumed to be the best measure of a life.
* * *
At the start of the recession I lost my marriage, my home, my savings and my job all within six months. Every identity was stripped from me. I was reduced to one modifier: failure. And it was true. I'd failed in every way a man is judged. Go and read Hard Times and you'll find that story repeated a thousand different ways. But what saves a man is to take a step, and then another, and another. It is always the same step and you have to take it. Having been flayed bare I started from zero and wanted to see what I could yet make of my life.
What is it about money that controls us? I do not believe it is mere acquisition or the ugly habit of Veblen's conspicuous consumption. No, this goes back further. In the west the story begins with the fall of Eden and the collective punishment of labor. We have been held by these stories because there has always been someone who benefited from them: priests, rulers, bankers, burghers. If you want to get to heaven/own a business/rule and judge others, then work, work, work. We have never escaped the idea of castes and of trying to escape them and so have internalized this poison until we can sing its praises.
The drollest commentary is this: Arbeit macht frei. The full horror of which was not lost on its creators.
* * *
No, we fuck ourselves when we cede the authority over our lives to others who have no scruples about meeting their outsized need to control and manipulate in the name of wealth/power. We fuck ourselves when the autonomy we are fucking born with is traded for debt and a bigger house we cannot afford. We fuck ourselves when we cease cooperating with one another and make it everyman for himself: a hellhole of Darwinian economics.
Listen, bubbe, you want to unfuck your life? Unfuck the way you measure it. Your bank account is the least important thing about you. We all need dough to live. No doubt, no doubt, no doubt. But we sure as hell don't have to participate in the shitshow that keeps us indentured to systems that steal not only our labor and years, but our very sense of self in the process. Do not die a mere plaything of chance. Instead, die a free man or woman who devoted their labor to a cause greater than themselves, who, through the sustaining power of that commitment, used their wit and soul to author their own life and so be a wellspring of fearlessness for those who encountered them.
* * *
Go. Let no man choose for you.