No 99, Posted by fw, December 25, 2010
“The world could be much better if more of us were more active on behalf of what we believe in and love; it would be much worse if countless activists weren’t already at work from Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and the climate activists in Tuvalu to the homeless activists around the corner from me. When I studied disasters past, what amazed me was not just that people behaved so beautifully, but that, in doing so, they found such joy. It seems that something in their natures, starved in ordinary times, was fed by the opportunity, under the worst of conditions, to be generous, brave, idealistic, and connected; and when this appetite was fulfilled, the joy shone out, even amid the ruins.” Rebecca Solnit
A primary purpose of my blog is to share the good news stories about ordinary people making a difference in their own communities and beyond. The posts, some personal and original, most copied or adapted from other sources, are chosen with the intention to inspire, inform, and teach something of value.
Today’s post, an edited adaptation of Rebecca Solnit’s Iceberg Economies and Shadow Selves: Further Adventures in the Territories of Hope is a testimony to hope — hope built on the innate, boundless human capacity for selfless caring for one another. Even though Solnit is writing about the U.S., acts of kindness transcend national borders. (The original article was shortened and subheadings were added to facilitate skimming).
Iceberg Economies and Shadow Selves: Further Adventures in the Territories of Hope by Rebecca Solnit
There is growing evidence of an “visible hand” at work, one that gives rather than takes
After the Macondo well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, it was easy enough (on your choice of screen) to see a flaming oil platform, the very sea itself set afire with huge plumes of black smoke rising, and the dark smear of what would become five million barrels of oil beginning to soak birds and beaches. Infinitely harder to see and less dramatic was the vast counterforce soon at work: the mobilizing of tens of thousands of volunteers, including passionate locals from fishermen in the Louisiana Oystermen’s Association to an outraged tattoo-artist-turned-organizer, from visiting scientists, activist groups, and Catholic Charities reaching out to Vietnamese fishing families to the journalist and oil-policy expert Antonia Juhasz, and Rosina Philippe of the Atakapa-Ishak tribe in Grand Bayou. And don’t forget the ceaseless toil of the Sierra Club’s local environmental justice organizer, the Gulf Coast Restoration Network, the New Orleans-born poet-turned-investigator Abe Louise Young, and so many more than I can list here.
I think of one ornithologist I met in Grand Bayou who had been dispatched to the Gulf by an organization, but had decided to stay on even if his funding ran out. This mild-mannered man with a giant pair of binoculars seemed to have some form of pneumonia, possibly induced by oil-fume inhalation, but that didn’t stop him. He was among the thousands whose purpose in the Gulf had nothing to do with profit, unless you’re talking about profiting the planet.
The force he represented mattered there, as it does everywhere — a force that has become ever more visible to me as I live and journey among those who dedicate themselves to their ideals and act on their solidarities. Only now, though, am I really beginning to understand the full scope of its power.
Versus the undisguised evidence of an “invisible claw”, one that takes rather than gives
Long ago, Adam Smith wrote about the “invisible hand” of the free market, a phrase which always brings to my mind horror movies and Gothic novels in which detached and phantasmagorical limbs go about their work crawling and clawing away. The idea was that the economy would somehow self-regulate and so didn’t need to be interfered with further — or so still go the justifications for capitalism, even though it took an enormous armature of government interventions to create the current mix of wealth and poverty in our world. Your tax dollars pay for wars that make the world safe for giant oil corporations, and those corporations hand over huge sums of money to their favorite politicians (and they have so many favorites!) to regulate the political system to continue to protect, reward, and enrich themselves. But you know that story well.
As 2010 ends, what really interests me aren’t the corrosions and failures of this system, but the way another system, another invisible hand, is always at work in what you could think of as the great, ongoing, Manichean arm-wrestling match that keeps our planet spinning. The invisible claw of the market may fail to comprehend how powerful the other hand — the one that gives rather than takes — is, but neither does that open hand know itself or its own power. It should. We all should.
The Iceberg Economy
Who wouldn’t agree that our society is capitalistic, based on competition and selfishness? As it happens, however, huge areas of our lives are also based on gift economies, barter, mutual aid, and giving without hope of return (principles that have little or nothing to do with competition, selfishness, or scarcity economics). Think of the relations between friends, between family members, the activities of volunteers or those who have chosen their vocation on principle rather than for profit.
Think of the acts of those — from daycare worker to nursing home aide or the editor of TomDispatch.com — who do more, and do it more passionately, than they are paid to do; think of the armies of the unpaid who are at “work” counterbalancing and cleaning up after the invisible hand and making every effort to loosen its grip on our collective throat. Such acts represent the relations of the great majority of us some of the time and a minority of us all the time. They are, as the two feminist economists who published together as J. K. Gibson-Graham noted, the nine-tenths of the economic iceberg that is below the waterline.
Capitalism is only kept going by this army of anti-capitalists, who constantly exert their powers to clean up after it, and at least partially compensate for its destructiveness. Behind the system we all know, in other words, is a shadow system of kindness, the other invisible hand. Much of its work now lies in simply undoing the depredations of the official system. Its achievements are often hard to see or grasp. How can you add up the foreclosures and evictions that don’t happen, the forests that aren’t leveled, the species that don’t go extinct, the discriminations that don’t occur?
The good that we do in the “shadows”
The official economic arrangements and the laws that enforce them ensure that hungry and homeless people will be plentiful amid plenty. The shadow system provides soup kitchens, food pantries, and giveaways, takes in the unemployed, evicted, and foreclosed upon, defends the indigent, tutors the poorly schooled, comforts the neglected, provides loans, gifts, donations, and a thousand other forms of practical solidarity, as well as emotional support. In the meantime, others seek to reform or transform the system from the inside and out, and in this way, inch by inch, inroads have been made on many fronts over the past half century.
Versus the “terrible things done in our name and thanks in part to the complicity of our silence or ignorance”
The terrible things done, often in our name and thanks in part to the complicity of our silence or ignorance, matter. They are what wells up daily in the news and attracts our attention. In estimating the true make-up of the world, however, gauging the depth and breadth of this other force is no less important. What actually sustains life is far closer to home and more essential, even if deeper in the shadows, than market forces and much more interesting than selfishness.
We not only have a largely capitalist economy but an ideological system that justifies this as inevitable. “There is no alternative,” as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used to like to say. Many still argue that this is simply the best human nature, nasty to the core, can possibly hope to manage.
We tend to think revolution has to mean a big in-the-streets, winner-take-all battle that culminates with regime change, but in the past half century it has far more often involved a trillion tiny acts of resistance that sometimes cumulatively change a society so much that the laws have no choice but to follow after. Certainly, American society has changed profoundly over the past half century for those among us who are not male, or straight, or white, or Christian, becoming far less discriminatory and exclusionary.
Radicals often speak as though we live in a bleak landscape in which the good has yet to be born, the revolution yet to begin. . . . Both of them are here, right now, and they always have been. They are represented in countless acts of solidarity and resistance, and sometimes they even triumph. When they don’t — and that’s often enough — they still do a great deal to counterbalance the official organization of our country and economy. That organization ensures oil spills, while the revolutionaries, if you want to call them that, head for the birds and the beaches, and maybe, while they’re at it, change the official order a little, too.
Two sides of human nature — aggressive and selfish versus altruistic and compassionate — and we have the intellectual capacity and perhaps the will power to choose between the two
Most of us are constantly urged to see the world as, at best, a competitive place and, at worst, a constant war of each against each, and you can see just that without even bothering to look too hard. But that’s not all you can see.
Writing my recent book about disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell, led me to look at the extraordinary way people behave when faced with catastrophes and crises. From news coverage to Hollywood movies, the media suggest that, in these moments of turbulence when institutions often cease to function, we revert to our original nature in a Hobbesian wilderness where people fend for themselves.
Here’s the surprise though: in such situations, most of us fend for each other most of the time — and beautifully at that. Perhaps this, rather than (human) nature red in tooth and claw, is our original nature. At least, the evidence is clear that people not only behave well, but take deep pleasure in doing so, a pleasure so intense it suggests that an unspoken, unmet appetite for meaningful work and vibrant solidarities lives powerfully within us. Those appetites can be found reflected almost nowhere in the mainstream media, and we are normally told that the world in which such appetites might be satisfied is “utopian,” impossible to reach because of our savage competitiveness, and so should be left to the most hopeless of dreamers. . . .
Do not underestimate the power of this force. The world could be much better if more of us were more active on behalf of what we believe in and love; it would be much worse if countless activists weren’t already at work from Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and the climate activists in Tuvalu to the homeless activists around the corner from me. When I studied disasters past, what amazed me was not just that people behaved so beautifully, but that, in doing so, they found such joy. It seems that something in their natures, starved in ordinary times, was fed by the opportunity, under the worst of conditions, to be generous, brave, idealistic, and connected; and when this appetite was fulfilled, the joy shone out, even amid the ruins.
The Force is With Us — all we have to do is recognize, celebrate and develop it
Don’t think of this as simply a description of my hopes for 2011, but of what was going on right under our noses in 2010; it’s a force we would do well to name, recognize, celebrate, and enlarge upon now. It is who we are, if only we knew it.
Rebecca Solnit hangs out with climate-change activists, homeless advocates, booksellers, civil libertarians, anti-war veterans, moms, urbanists, Zen monks, and investigative journalists and she sure didn’t write this piece for the money. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she has worked with Native American land rights, antinuclear, human rights, antiwar and other issues as an activist and journalist. She is the author of 13 books, including last year’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.
Copyright 2010 Rebecca Solnit