I went to D.C. for a job interview last week. Riding in the airport van in the rain from Dulles surrounded by the familiar climate and landscape brought back the feeling of Albemarle County, Virginia, where I grew up. Out the window through the rain I saw an SUV and was instantly transported back in time to 8th grade when my best friend Phoebe’s dad got a new jeep with Eddie Bauer leather interior and picked us up from school in it. I was flooded with the feeling of safety I had whenever I was doing something mundane like grocery shopping with Phoebe’s family. They were my escape from my chaotic, dirty, small, sad stressful house where that whole year my mom lay dying of cancer. Our fragile little family held together sloppily by a single mom on welfare and burdened by shame and struggle was its final decline. Being the youngest I was the one sitting at home all the time trying to fill my mom’s shoes as the caretaker, trying to get her to eat, trying not to run away when she coughed and vomited and struggled to stand up and walk naked, skin hanging from bones, to the bathroom. At Phoebe’s house there were two parents, meals at a table, rules, no cursing, no drunkenness, clean sheets, the feeling of being taken care of, restrained and guided.
It is not surprising, in some ways, that an SUV can evoke all that. It is marketed, like so many things, to promise safety while reminding us of our insecurity and fear. These forces underscore capitalism—structured insecurity—the requirement that there always be a pool of unemployed laborers keeps us all in line, fearing poverty even when we’re the least vulnerable to it and craving ever more security—personal, national, economic—even when that quest for security (in the form of accumulation) ever-broadens the domestic and global wealth gap that makes everyone less safe and secure.
How do we manage desire in this emotional/political context? I think most people have some critique of their desire, some limits at which they become concerned about its impact. Whether it is concern about the environmental impact of big cars, or the labor practices supported by buying sweatshop made clothing, or the local business- and culture-killing effects of frequenting starbucks, I hear a lot of people across class making decisions about what to consume that recognize the impact of their desire and consumption on others and the principle of interconnectedness that such a recognition requires.
I am interested in how that impulse could expand, building on the analysis people have when they “vote with their dollars” by boycotting something or supporting something else, to encompass a broader understanding of the connection of our personal economic choices to the well being of others and the world we want to live in. In other words, how can we build a broader politics of redistribution that expands the critical perspectives many of us already have about consuming some goods?
I see an example of a community ethic of critical desire emerging in some aspect of the “green business” conversation. That dialogue has invited people to shift norms of desire by understanding the impact of their desire and consumption on others and understanding the desires they have inherited from culture as products of damaging political conditions (like SUV’s in an oil war). So, when people in the local foods movement write and talk about the value of building desire for fresh local fruits and vegetables in season, they are also encouraging us to question our desire for peaches in January and acknowledge the conditions that produced massive agricultural reforms that changed how food gets to our tables and the impact on local farms and on the environment of food traveling thousands of miles to our plates.
I am interested in how we could build a shared conversation that engages desire critically about money and consumption more broadly. I want to be involved in conversations with people who are joining me in acknowledging the maldistribution of wealth that permeates our world and thinking creatively about how we can be agents of redistribution in our personal lives. In other words, I want to start talking to people I know about how we can all give more money away. What is hard about this conversation is that there is an enormous taboo about talking about money in our culture, and there is an enormous feeling of scarcity and financial insecurity that everyone seems to experience in capitalism. These problems are compounded by guilt—people often feel judged about what they consume and are afraid of opening the topic about what is in their bank accounts and what kinds of electronics they are buying, even with their intimate friends, for fear of being judged. This fear is not unreasonable because often the way we all deal with our insecurity about how we’re living our lives is to judge others, so judgment is definitely a danger. To me that whole picture of fear, judgment, secrecy, and insecurity is extremely convenient for maintaining the status quo of maldistribution and preventing meaningful conversations about developing an ethical relationship to desire and consumerism in community with others.
Maybe I am naïve, but I see signs of hope for this conversation everywhere. I think many people are already engaging in some kind of critical thinking about some of their consumer desires, whether it is based on environmental concern, labor practices, or small business support. I want us to take that conversation to the next level. I want to see people talking to each other about the politics of where their money goes—what it means to “save,” what it means to buy real estate, what it means to own ipods and cell phones, what it means to give money to homeless people, what it means to give money to non-profits, what it means to share money with friends. I want us to talk about the politics of inheritance and retirement and have some thoughts about these things instead of just working on auto-pilot (aka reproducing capitalism, the ever-growing wealth gap, poverty for most of the world). I want us to think about how we could shift our desires for security in interesting ways—maybe SUV’s look safe but what is really safe is reducing our oil dependency. Maybe retirement accounts feel safe but what is really safe is saving Social Security from being privatized by Republicans. Maybe owning property feels safe but what is really safe is working toward a world in which homelessness is inconceivable.
I just heard this radio program about how during the recent wildfires in San Diego, people with extremely expensive insurance had the benefit of private firefighters coming and defending their houses, while neighbors without it had their houses burn. The fires caused a lot more damage than they might have if we didn’t live in a country that is defunding emergency services and sending our National Guard to Iraq. The message that came through to many who lost their houses is, “the government can’t protect you, you have to buy more expensive private insurance that comes with private firefighters.” As we continue in that direction, we see the costs of safety go up and the penalties of poverty increase. I am hoping for a different conversation where we might take our fierce desires for safety and security and invest them in collective well-being that is a much more sustainable kind of protection.
Part of what I like so much about some of the environmentalism conversations is that they are not (sometimes) competitive or judgmental. People share their ideas and practices without demanding that one another do the exact same thing. Maybe you compost and your friend drives a veggie diesel car, and you tell each other about your practices and get inspired by each other, but there is not the sense of harsh judgment that might keep you from talking at all. I want the same thing in conversations about wealth redistribution. People’s lives are different, our needs and experiences are different, and we each need to navigate these difficult questions in our own ways. We might find that communities or groups of friends share absolute limits about some things—a rejection of a certain consumer good that all agree is appallingly wasteful or luxurious, or we might find that there are no shared absolutes. Ideally, what would be shared is a practice of inquiry about desire that helps us move toward more mutually beneficial ways of addressing our shared insecurities and fear. Maybe groups of friends make an agreement about caring for each other during illness or emergency rather than hoarding resources privately in fear of facing those circumstances alone. Maybe people agree on a major common fear and figure out how they can pool resources to support community organizing work aimed at alleviating that particular vulnerability. I think the answer to capitalist alienation, insecurity and fear is not private consumption, which only adds fuel to the fire, but connection and commitment to recognizing how our fates are tied.