A couple weeks ago I was having a talk with somebody at a coffee shop in my neighborhood, and I noticed some graffiti on the bathroom wall that said: “Downward mobility is not radical.” Incidentally, the talk I was having that day was with a young white class-privileged person who was struggling with what to do with some inherited money, and we were talking about wealth and social justice and giving away inheritance and all of these things, and the whole time I kept pondering the graffiti and thinking that actually, downward mobility is radical. Wouldn’t it be very radical if all wealthy people gave away their money and spent only what they needed to live?
[I'm talking here about the kind of downward mobility that's chosen and intentional, not the job-loss/cuts-to-social-services/increasing-wealth-disparity kind.]
But I know what the graffiti means – it means that the writer is sick of people who act like they don’t have money when actually they do. Personally, I lived this problematic phenomenon for several years after high school, which I spent hitchhiking, trainhopping, and dumpster diving my way around the country in the company of other freewheeling punk youth who (like me) often lacked a particularly tight race and class analysis. I have a multifaceted critique of this time in my life – on one hand, it was defined by the bad type of ”downward mobility” that rightfully gets a lot of criticism. Many of us had access to wealthy parents, private educations, and all the other safety nets common to privileged young people, which we generally never talked about. Does anyone else remember that Crimethinc book that said something like, “Poverty, homelessness, unemployment: If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right”? That attitude characterized a lot of the worst manifestations of punk traveler culture: privileged white kids temporarily rejecting middle- and upper-class lifestyles without much real critique about poverty and white supremacy, and then getting really self righteous about our subcultural choices. In retrospect, I feel so regretful about the arrogant glorification of poverty that was common in that scene, and how it contributed to invisibilizing the struggles of poor people and the real violence of poverty.
But I want to be able to have this critique while also acknowledging that a lot of the choices I made then and the lifestyle practices of that subculture still feel really relevant to the politics I have now. Do-it-yourself punk culture at its best meant rejecting the dictates of capitalist accumulation, actively seizing privatized resources that should be public, producing independent media and music and art, building cultures of collectivity outside of mainstream capitalist society, and creating independent, autonomous organizations to do everything from direct action to media-making to holistic healing to urban gardening to creating and sharing housing. So many of the practices I picked up during my years of embracing punk rock lifestyle politics are still great ideas and things that I still do.
It seems not-that-hard to build on this and create new, more politicized cultural norms that take these practices further and base them more solidly in beliefs about movement-building and economic justice. I was talking to someone recently about our shared experience of making choices (hitchhiking, squatting, dumpstering, etc) that were very far outside our class experience, and how it felt easy and not like a hardship because everyone around us was doing it too. I draw parallels to this in my head when having conversations with class-privileged folks who are part of similar opposed-to-the-capitalist-mainstream subcultures. Like: what if instead of teaching rich people to pretend to be poor, our subcultural norms supported privileged folks to actually give away money and practice a form of downward mobility that was based on a principled choice to redistribute wealth, support grassroots organizing, and live as little as possible off the exploitation of others? That sounds good, right? Given all the people I talk to all the time who are struggling to reconcile social justice politics with having access to inherited wealth, it’s amazing to me how uncommon giving away money is as a talked-about subcultural practice in most of the circles I inhabit. But at the same time these types of conversations give me hope because I get to hear so many people earnestly struggling with these issues, and it makes it seem possible that enough young lefty rich people will start seriously giving away major portions of their capital and talking about it in a way that will start to make that choice seem normal and safe instead of risky and extreme. Does that seem possible? Is it already kind of happening?