Barbara Ehrenreich has a wonderful essay on the way we’re turning on ourselves in response to the financial crisis - and how we should be turning our anger outwards. She’s right - and it isn’t just suicide. Depression, domestic violence, child abuse - all of these are on the rise, and in large part due to the fact that people are poorer, scared and frustrated. Ehrenreich writes of the move to respond to the financial bad news by destroying yourself that we’re aiming in the wrong direction:
“Dry your eyes, already: Death is an effective remedy for debt, along with anything else that may be bothering you too. And try to think of it too from a lofty, corner-office, perspective: If you can’t pay your debts or afford to play your role as a consumer, and if, in addition — like an ever-rising number of Americans — you’re no longer needed at the workplace, then there’s no further point to your existence. I’m not saying that the creditors, the bankers and the mortgage companies actually want you dead, but in a culture where one’s credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth, the correct response to insoluble debt is in fact, “Just shoot me!”
The alternative is to value yourself more than any amount of money and turn the guns, metaphorically speaking, in the other direction. It wasn’t God, or some abstract economic climate change, that caused the credit crisis. Actual humans — often masked as financial institutions — did that, (and you can find a convenient list of names in Nomi Prins’s article in the current issue of Mother Jones.) Most of them, except for a tiny few facing trials, are still high rollers, fattening themselves on the blood and tears of ordinary debtors. I know it’s so 1930s, but may I suggest a march on Wall Street?”
And may I hear an amen? I’m with Ehrenreich here - we’ve all been taught to be ashamed of poverty, that we’re in charge of our own destiny, and thus, if we are poor, we’ve failed. This, of course is a lie - but a terribly potent one, one with the power to hurt us very badly - as long as we let it.
It is time and past time to stop buying that lie, to get angry and turn our anger towards the places we can make a difference. For example, right now, our future is being stolen from us as the Fed and other government agencies pour billions of dollars - billions that might have been spent on food aid, hunger relief, reinsulation of millions of homes, renewable energy applications for schools and hospitals - into Wall Street, into an economy that is collapsing anyway. Our money, and our future is being treated as so much garbage. And we are permitting it.
In his book _The People’s History of the Twentieth Century_, Howard Zinn speculates that in fact, the New Deal wasn’t so much a response to the desperation of the American people during the Depression, but a response to the sheer success of collective action by ordinary people. Labor Unions and organized resistance to foreclosures and evictions became so powerful, so dangerous to institutional powers, that government response was in part motivated by the recognition that their power was *GOING TO GO AWAY PERMANENTLY* because people realized - oh wait, we don’t have to let them take our homes away, or treat us like slaves. That is, the Depression brought great suffering - but it also brought the recognition that the only solution to that suffering lay in the hands of ordinary people. This is no less true now than then, although it is sometimes hard to see or remember.
Or think, for example, about the tremendous energies used by Southern slave owners to prevent slave rebellions. The prohibitions against reading and writing, the hideous punishments of failed ones, all of this was used to convince slaves that they could not win - even though there’s an excellent chance they could have, had enough rebelled. Deep at the heart of slavery and every kind of repression is the knowledge that if enough people care enough, are angry enough, are willing enough to sacrifice for something better, all the slave owners and entrenched powers are doomed. All it takes is enough “no”s.
On the same day I read Ehrenreich’s article, I got an email from a man who said:
”I’m getting ready for climate change and peak oil. I’m working with my community. I’m preparing personally. I know I’m doing the right thing by reading and learning and teaching others. But I can’t shake this feeling of sadness. When my daughter was born, 6 years ago, I was so excited, so filled with hopes and dreams for her. Now, as I learn more about the world, I feel like all my dreams have died, and my hopes are being reduced to ‘I hope my daughter gets to live in a world that isn’t too brutal and inhumane’ or ‘I hope even though there might not be enough resources to go around that she gets some.’ I don’t like the dreamless person I’m becoming. How do I find something to hope for, to dream of, that isn’t the bare minimum of survival?”
It was an email I didn’t quite know how to answer when I first got it, and the gentleman kindly gave me permission to think about it and print an answer here. But now, I think I do have a kind of an answer.
One of the criticisms levelled at my end of (the relocalizers, permaculturists, sustainability crew) is that we’re unrealistic, utopian, that we don’t fully grasp how hard it will be to simply keep alive, and now we’re shooting at making things better?!? And there’s almost certainly some truth to that criticism - as there is to all potent critiques. And lord knows, as a recent Onion Headline (”Small, Dedicated Group of Concerned Citizens Fails to Change World”) points up, it is easy to get a little too fuzzy and cute about empowerment and imagine that simply by reducing the scale of some things while fundraising and putting up the right bumperstickers that we’ll magically make all the entrenched powers go away.
But while they are pretty good at ignoring or subverting small groups of concerned citizens, the old adage about coyotes (that they are more scared of you than you are of them) rather applies to politicians, corporations and other entrenched powers when faced with big groups of pissed off people. Want proof? Look at history - at the number of times angry groups of people have changed societies quite rapidly and radically. It happens all the time. It isn’t happening yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t.
So as I cast about for answers to what my correspondent can dream for his children, and I for mine, I found this - a dream of anger, used wisely. A world in which today’s parents, and all today’s grownups have the courage to get angry, and use the power they have. In which they have the ability to see what is possible, and to take in a host of ways as much power as they can for ordinary people. As institutions and politicians and corporations are more and more proved utterly unequal to the task of meeting our needs, we can open our eyes and see that we can meet them - or we can withdraw our support and tolerance from those institutions until serve us, rather than forcing us to serve them.
Then I can dream of two things for my boys, and for his daughter. First, that they will grow up uncowed by those powers - aware that they only seem distant and immovable. And also that they will know that their anger and passion are powerful enough to take an imperfect, warmer, depleted world, and find a kind of sufficiency within it - with enough left over for dreams for the next generation.