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Archive for the month “March, 2019”

Capitalism and Self Care

capitalism

Capitalism and Self Care

H. Bradford

3/27/19


Whenever I hear the word self-care, I feel a little skeptical.  It seems like one of those feel good notions that activists and “helping” professionals ritualistically throw around to pay homage to burn out, compassion fatigue, or just the very human need for food, sleep, and health.  The Marxist in me always feels a bit cynical about the whole thing. To me, self care seems self-evident. A world in which me must pause, consider our needs, and carve out some extra space and time to meet these needs seems extraordinarily exploitative.  The concept itself seems atomizing, as the inability of capitalist society to meet human needs is placed upon the individual, who is tasked with adequately caring for themselves. At worst, it seems like a hedonistic excuse to retreat from society or struggle.  Self-care seems like the chore of maintaining oneself just enough to continue to be miserable. Some of this pessimism regarding self-care is founded, but some of it is not. Indeed, self-care has radical roots which should be reclaimed to push back against the crisis of care created by capitalism.


Capitalism and the Crisis of Care


To begin, it is useful to examine care more generally and how “care” connects to capitalism.  Care is often an invisible, expected, and taken for granted role for women in society. Women have long been associated with care, as in the care for children or care for families, but capitalism created the conditions wherein economic production and social reproduction separated into two distinct categories.  In other words, capitalism created a dichotomy between waged work and “care” (Arruza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser, 2019).  Economic production became something that happened inside of offices or factories, where it was remunerated with a wage (Leonard and Fraser, 2016). “Care” became the sentimentalized labor that women often do as a matter of love than for pay, and as such, it is not as valued or recognized in society (Arruza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser, 2019).


According to a 2015 report, 1.9 billion children under the age of 15 and 200 million older adults are in need of care.  This number is expected reach 2.3 billion by the year 2030. Globally, among 64 countries studied, 16.4 billion hours per day are spent performing unpaid care work.  76.2% of this is done by women (Women do 4 times more unpaid care work than men in Asia and the Pacific, 2017). Around the world, women complete more unpaid labor in the home than men, wit the largest differences found in Asian countries such as Japan, China, India, and South Korea.  Women also spend less time each day engaged in leisure activities. For instance, in the United States, women spend about 262 minutes eat day on leisure activities, whereas men spend about 305 minutes. In Greece, women enjoy 318 minutes of leisure, whereas men have 393 minutes each day.  In Portugal, women have 200 minutes of leisure each day and men, 289 minutes (Taei, 2019). Among OECD countries, women complete 4.5 hours of unpaid labor each day or 271 minutes. In comparison, men average around 2.5 hours each day, or 137 minutes (Berman, 2017). The gender gap in unpaid labor starts young, as according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teenage girls perform 38 minutes of chores each day, whereas teenage boys do 24 minutes of chores each day (Gollayan, 2019).

Image result for unpaid work around the world


The lack of leisure time and large amounts of unpaid household care work, certainly create the conditions wherein women need self-care.  Beyond unpaid labor preparing food, washing clothes, cleaning homes, caring for children, or tending to the sick, women are often relegated to exhausting, low paid, undervalued “caring” professions.  97.5% of kindergarten and preschool teachers are women, 94.4% of childcare workers, 94% of nurse practitioners, 89.9% of maids and housekeepers, 89% of teaching assistants, and 84.5% of personal care aids are women.  Women make up the majority of the service industry, as they make up 80% of restaurant hosts, 72% of cashiers, 71% of non-restaurant food servers, 70% of waiters, and 66% of hotel front desk workers (Rocheleau, 2018). Thus, when women are not at home caring for children, workers, and retirees, they often find themselves thrust into paid care work, wherein they care for children, serve food,  provide medical care, or care for the elderly. Cashiers, waitresses, personal care attendants, and hostesses each have an average income of under $22,000 a year, at least according to 2013 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among teachers, those who serve younger ages make less. For instance, Kindergarten teachers average $52,800 a year, whereas secondary education teachers average $58,300 a year (Wile, 2015).   Thus, those who engage in care work often face a wage penalty.

Image result for female cashier

Image taken from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-03/a-female-cashier-works-in-a-supermarket/6276318


One way that the amount of care work that women engage in can be explained is through Social Reproduction Theory.  According to Social Reproduction theory, capitalism charges women with the upkeep of capitalism. Social Reproduction posits that in order to perpetuate itself, capitalism needs both a future generation of workers and the upkeep of current workers, retired workers, and non-workers.  Thus, historically women have been tasked with having children, raising children, caring for the elderly or people who cannot work, cooking, cleaning, other household chores, and all of the other, mostly unpaid labor that goes into ensuring that capitalism can continue. Much of this labor occurs within the family, but some social reproduction may be provided for by the state or private sector (Arruza, 2016).  When the state engages in social reproduction, it can be said that the care work has been socialized. On the other hand, when the private sector engages in care work, it means it is commodified (Leonard and Fraser, 2016). For instance, when countries provide state funded day care centers or nursing homes, the state is engaged in the social reproduction of capitalism. However, as it will be argued later, many of the paid employees in such institutions are women.  As a whole, women are often engaged in what is generally called “care work” which is paid and unpaid labor that involves the care of people, but can also include care for animals, communities, or environments. While care work is not a specifically Marxist term or a phenomenon that is unique to capitalism, care work is an essential component to capitalism’s continuation. Capitalism is contradictory as it does not provide for its own upkeep. It requires workers, yet the profit motive drives capitalism to lower wages and lessened working conditions  The drive for profits also results in austerity, or cuts to social programs and the privatization of public institutions which provide care. This results in a crisis of care, in which women find that they have trouble balancing paid labor with reproductive labor (Arruza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser, 2019).


The Crisis of Care is a profound insight to the nature of capitalism and may offer why self-care is so popular and necessary.  During the 20th century, many advanced capitalist societies expanded the state’s role in social reproduction. The global south did not experience this, as they were predated upon by imperialist powers of the north.  A strong labor movement pushed for social reforms that shortened the work day, banned child labor, provided some social welfare programs, and ensured a family wage. However, racism within more advanced capitalist countries such as the United States meant that not all workers enjoyed these benefits equally and access to the “family wage” was predicated upon heteronormative monogamous relationships (Leonard and Fraser, 2016).  Yet, in the last forty years in order to eke out profits in an increasingly competitive global economy, the gains of workers have been attacked in many ways. Following the post World War II boom, the United States began to lose its place in the world economically in the 1960s and 1970s as Japan and Europe rebuilt their economies. The United States also began to de-industrialize, as industrial union jobs went to more profitable, low wage, non-union places elsewhere in the world.  The loss of these higher paying jobs put pressure upon women to enter the workforce as a single family wage was no longer adequate, though the feminist movement also pushed to break down barriers to entry into the paid economy as a matter of equality, freedom, and self-determination. Between 1970 and 2003, 60% of new jobs created went to women, yet at the same time wages have been stagnant. For the first time, white women began to engage in paid labor as much as Black women (who historically have not enjoyed the privilege of working only in one arena of the economy).  Of course, much of this growth was in the service industry, though there was also growth in finance, real estate, and insurance industries (Eisenstein, 2005). These areas are interesting, because they are associated with what Marxist call fictitious capital, or a more unstable economic area where capitalists go when they’ve run out of space to invest elsewhere, so this sort of job growth is also indicative of the crisis of capitalism. While the United States was de-industrializing, there has also been a global push towards austerity and privatization (Eisenstein, 2005).   It is little wonder then that in the face of attacks at work in the form of depressed wages, longer hours, less stability and also the loss of social benefits, that the crisis in care has driven women towards self-care to restore stability, wellness, and balance in their lives.  Self-care offers a reprieve from the ravages of capitalism.

Image result for u.s. real wages over time

Just an image of Real Wages over time


The Commodification of Self Care


The economic conditions of capitalism limits the ability of workers to take care of themselves.  Self-care may resonate with some women because they are stretched thin between paid and unpaid labor.  It is little wonder then that in recent years, there has been increased interest in self-care. In 2017, there was an uptick in the self-care activities with a 17% increase in therapy, 34% increase in yoga, 16% increase in meditation, and 19% increase in daily walks (Daniels, 2018).  There are over five million posts about self care on Instagram (Lieberman, 2018). Self-care became more mainstream after the 2016 election and was googled twice as much as in year following it (Aisha, 2017). The popularity of self-care related topics on social media contributes to differences in who engages in self-care.  For instance, millenials spend twice as much as boomers on self-care. This younger demographic is more internet savvy, which allows them to search for self care ideas and get exposure to self care through social media (Silva, 2017). Problematically, self-care within capitalism is commodified and individualized. It also reflects of disparities in ability, rage, class, sexuality, gender, and other areas of oppression.  For example, the beauty industry is quick to appropriate “self care” as a means to sell products. Ofra Cosmetics used the slogan “Turn Your Skin Care Routine Into A Self-Care Ritual,” to turn using skin care products into an act of self-care (Boyne, 2018). By 2024, the skincare industry is estimated to grow to $180 billion and even congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared her skincare routine on Instagram, divulging that she keeps makeup wipes by her bed to allow her skin to breathe.  Healthy skin is seen as virtuous, rather than a signifier of wealth (Hill, 2019).

Image result for self care skin care

An advertisement for Mad Peaches Med Spa- http://madpeachesmedspa.com/skin-care-is-self-care/


One of the more obvious examples of the commodification of self-care is, Gwyneth Paltrow, who made $250 million by selling wellness products under her brand Goop.  The company sells such things as emotional detox bath soaps and vaginal steams (Daniels, 2018). These products fleece women of their money in the interest of classist and gendered notion of what it means to care for oneself.  Self-care could be a $10 tube of Goop toothpaste, an $85 medicine bag containing several crystals, or a $3500 gold sex toy (K., 2018). In 2017, the self-care industry was estimated to be worth $4.2 trillion globally. Over the past two years, the industry has a growth rate of 6.4%, which is twice the growth rate of the entire global economy.  The largest component is anti-aging, skin care, and beauty, which makes up $1.08 trillion. Another area of growth in the self-care industry is food, of which, foods categorized as keto, plant based, probiotic, low sugar, paleo, vegetarian, flexitarian, and gut healthy are the top food trends in 2019. Athletic wear, cannabis, and low cost gyms are also areas of growth within the self-care industry (Low, 2018).

Self-Care for the Cubicle-Bound

“Self Care for the Cubicle Bound”- From Goop- https://goop.com/beauty/makeup/self-care-cubicle-bound/


Self-care often gets mashed together with self-improvement and might be viewed as a modern iteration of this long standing theme in Western culture.  For instance, Socrates advised that young men should not enter political leadership until they have worked on themselves. Foucault observed that cultivating the soul and self was part of the thinking of Seneca, Epictetus, and many early Christian thinkers.  In U.S. history, the concept of self-care was used towards racist ends, as Samuel Cartwright justified slavery because slaves were unable to care for themselves on account of their inferior race. Scholar, Matthew Frye Jacobson used a similar argument against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, as he claimed they were unable to care for themselves.  The argument was also used to justify denying women the right to vote (Kisner, 2017). Within the self-care industry, the self-improvement industry is worth $11 billion. Mindfulness meditation, which seems like something that could be done for free, is a $1 billion industry (Lieberman, 2018). This aspect of self-care is dangerous for several reasons. Firstly, it does not challenge the notion that a person’s worth is predicated upon their efforts towards self-improvement.  As illustrated earlier, hierarchies of better or more capable selves and lesser capable selves, was twisted into arguments against immigration, women’s suffrage, and for slavery. Self-care is racialized inasmuch as wellness is often depicted as a pastime for white women. The arena of self care is often a white space designed for white women and wherein other white women profit (Daniels, 2018). Self-care naturalizes wellness as white while rendering the outcomes of self-care as virtuous (healthy skin, fit bodies, physical ability).  Secondly, because self-improvement costs money, it creates a divide between who can improve and who cannot. Wellness is reserved for the wealthy who can afford the time and money for such things as expensive fitness classes, skin products, or foods. Because self-care is an individual endeavour, it does not address or contextualize social problems such as poverty (Daniels, 2018). Finally, it is simply stressful and laborious to improve oneself, especially when people are already overburdened with paid and unpaid labor. In a UK study of 200 women who used fitness trackers, 79% felt guilty if they did not meet their daily goals, 59% felt controlled by the device, and 30% felt like it was the enemy (Lieberman, 2018).


This newest, commodified version of self-care is a new capitalistic incarnation of the concept, but it has meant different things throughout history.  The Civil Rights movement and feminist movement engaged in self-care as a political act as a reaction to the failures of white, patriarchal society to care for their needs.  Part of the early movement for self-care entailed setting up women’s health clinics to address the health needs of women as an alternative to medical institutions which many women experienced as sexist and hostile to women’s health.  Self-care was also a component of The Black Panther Party’s orgazing. The Black Panthers sought to address community needs that had been unmet by the state. As such, they set up clinics to address the needs of black people, such as testing for sickle cell anemia or lead poisoning (Aisha, 2017).  The Black Panthers established thirteen free clinics around the the country and connected poor health as an outcome of poverty (Bassett, 2016). Today’s concept of self-care, which focuses on the individual and is far less political and community based. Another understanding of self care is the medical term employed in high stress jobs such as social workers, therapists, and EMTs, who recognized the need for self-care to avoid burn-out or compassion fatigue.  This use of the term is certainly not as radical as the Black Panther or feminist movement concept of community building, but at the very least recognizes that work can be a source of personal strain. During the 1980s and 1990s, self-care became disassociated from its political roots and more connected to commercialized fitness and wellness trends that appealed to middle class white people. Fitness clubs and yoga classes are the types of ways that self care has manifested since then.  In recent years, feminists and activists in the black community have shown renewed interest in self-care as well (Aisha, 2017).  After the mass shooting in Orlando, LGBTQ people around the world used the hashtag #queerselflove to post selfies and Jace Harr, a trans man, created a popular online questionnaire entitled, “You Feel Like Shit: An Interactive Self-Care guide” which asks users if they have drank water, feel disassociated, feel triggered, and other self-care questions.  Devin-Norelle, a trans black man, posted about self care after the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, saying “Healing is self-care is self-love, self-indulgence, and self-preservation, because sometimes we need to be reminded that #BlackIsBeautiful (Kisner, 2018).” Devin-Norelle’s post echoes a quote from Audre Lorde, who wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare (Boyle, ND).”  Similarly, Evette Dione wrote in Bitch Magazine that many people are poor, working themselves to early graves, and that self-care means pushing against society by asserting one’s own needs and existence (Kisner, 2018).

Image result for Black panther clinic

An image depicting the Black Panther’s Free Food Program- one of several social programs including clinics, food distribution, children’s breakfast program, and free ambulance.  From: https://atlantablackstar.com/2015/03/26/8-black-panther-party-programs-that-were-more-empowering-than-federal-government-programs/


Conclusion:


Care often falls upon the shoulders of women.  Women are often tasked with caring for children, elderly, those who are ill, their communities, and the environment.  This is done in both the paid and unpaid economy.   The strain of this physical and emotional labor leaves little time for self-care, but a strong need for it.  Capitalism commodifies self-care, turning it into something that requires time, effort, and money and bestowing virtues upon those who can accomplish balance, health, beauty and fitness.  While self-care could be liberating, in this economic context, it is another trap. It is time to return to the roots of self-care. Today’s society needs the militant, collective self-care.   Pressure should be put on the state and our workplaces for parental leave, paid sick time, healthy environments, socialized health care, free and expanded public transportation, living wages, affordable housing, reproductive justice, and all of the other things that are needed to live full and healthy lives.  Self-care must connect the self to the social struggle and build up people together as communities. We must care for another, while empowering each other to fight for the structural changes necessary to end sexism, racism, heterosexism, poverty, ableism, and all other forms of oppression once and for all. Chocolates, bubble baths, and yoga are alright, but self-care should be enjoyed with a revolutionary consciousness that seeks to end the child slavery that produces the chocolate,  the cultural appropriation that decontextualizes yoga among white people, and fights for access to clean water for all!  I suppose this sort of self-care is pretty exhausting, since it isn’t self-care as much as it is struggle. But, perhaps we can do self-care together, caring for each other along the way, so that we have strength and energy in each other. Finally, I think there is an important self-care tactic within the International Women’s Strike movement.  This is the tactic of striking, which is withdrawing labor. Self-care can mean withdrawing unpaid and paid labor to demand better conditions and a better world. The ultimate way we can take care of ourselves is to work towards a world wherein we don’t have to work with such effort, little pay, lack of control, and uncertainty.


Sources:

Arruzza, C. (2016). Functionalist, determinist, reductionist: Social reproduction feminism and its critics. Science & Society, 80(1), 9-30.

Arruzza, C.,  Bhattacharya, T., and Fraser F. (2019). FEMINISM FOR THE 99%. New York: VERSO.

Bassett M. T. (2016). Beyond Berets: The Black Panthers as Health Activists. American journal of public health, 106(10), 1741-3.

Berman, J. (2018, April 15). Women’s unpaid work is the backbone of the American economy. Retrieved from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/this-is-how-much-more-unpaid-work-women-do-than-men-2017-03-07

Boyle, S. (n.d.). Remembering the Origins of the Self-Care Movement. Retrieved from https://bust.com/feminism/194895-history-of-self-care-movement.html

Boyne, I. (2018, November 15). Self-care must separate itself from beauty industry. Retrieved from http://miscellanynews.org/2018/11/14/opinions/self-care-must-separate-itself-from-beauty-industry

Daniels, J. (2018, December 05). Opinion | This Holiday Season, Resist The Unbearable Whiteness Of Wellness. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/opinion-wellness-holidays-trump-gwyneth-paltrow-goop_us_5c07e65de4b0fc23611249c6

Eisenstein, H. (2005). A dangerous liaison? Feminism and corporate globalization. Science & Society, 69(3), 487-518.

Hill, J. (2019, March 19). Self-Care And Skin Care. Retrieved from https://the1a.org/shows/2019-03-19/self-care-and-skin-care

K., S. (2018, September 11). How Self-Care Became a $250 Million Business. Retrieved from https://www.couturesquemag.com/single-post/goop-self-care-politics-and-profit

Kisner, J. (2017, June 19). The Politics of Conspicuous Displays of Self-Care. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-politics-of-selfcare

Leonard, S., & Fraser, N. (2016, Fall). Capitalism’s Crisis of Care. Retrieved from https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/nancy-fraser-interview-capitalism-crisis-of-care

Low, E. (2019, January 28). Self Care Wellness Trends: Beauty, Fitness, Cannabis Fuel $4 Trillion Market. Retrieved from https://www.investors.com/news/self-care-wellness-trends-beauty-fitness-cannabis-market/

Gollayan, C. (2019, March 05). Teenage girls do more homework and household chores than boys: Study. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2019/03/05/teenage-girls-do-more-homework-and-household-chores-than-boys-study/

Harris, A. (2017, April 05). How “Self-Care” Went From Radical to Frou-Frou to Radical Once Again. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2017/04/the_history_of_self_care.html

Lieberman, C. (2018, August 10). How Self-Care Became So Much Work. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/08/how-self-care-became-so-much-work

Rocheleau, M. (2017, March 07). Chart: The percentage of women and men in each profession – The Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/03/06/chart-the-percentage-women-and-men-each-profession/GBX22YsWl0XaeHghwXfE4H/story.html

Silva, C. (2017, June 04). The Millennial Obsession With Self-Care. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2017/06/04/531051473/the-millennial-obsession-with-self-care

Taei, P. (2019, March 08). Visualizing Women’s Unpaid Work Across the Globe (A Special Chart). Retrieved from https://towardsdatascience.com/visualizing-womens-unpaid-work-across-the-globe-a-special-chart-9f2595fafaaa

Wilding, M., & Wilding, M. (2018, August 15). When Self-Care Turns into Self-Sabotage – Great Escape – Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/s/greatescape/when-self-care-turns-into-self-sabotage-489cef9859e5

Wile, R. (2015, June 13). This epic chart shows the average wage for almost every job in America. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/the-average-wage-for-almost-every-job-in-america-2015-6

Women do 4 times more unpaid care work than men in Asia and the Pacific. (2018, June 27). Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/asia/media-centre/news/WCMS_633284/lang–en/index.htm

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A Rock and a Hard Place: A Story About Poverty and Wishful Thinking

A Rock and a Hard Place

A Rock and a Hard Place:  A Story about Poverty and Wishful Thinking

H. Bradford

3.11.19


I grew up poor.   Of course, poor is relative, and to some degree, everyone was poor where I grew up in rural Minnesota.  The median household income in Cromwell in  2016 was $26,094.  In contrast, Duluth, a city about an hour away, has a median household income of $45,950 So, it is a poor area for this region.  Against this backdrop, my family was poor, owing to the fact that only one of my parents regularly worked outside of the home for most of my childhood, my father’s employment was fraught with periods of layoffs and injury, and because my parents were very young when they had me (my mother was in high school).  While I wasn’t the poorest of the poor and benefited from support from my grandparents, I grew up aware that we didn’t have the nicest home (a trailer in the woods), best toys, braces for my teeth, other families seemed to have more, and that finances stressed my parents out.   I remember one winter when my father was laid off of work, we ate potatoes and eggs during January and February.  I remember wanting things to be better for my parents.  I remember, in about the first grade, wishing that Santa would bring us more money.   As a child, I really didn’t have the tools to understand poverty, how it works, how to escape it, or that escape from poverty is atypical.  In my immature mindset, poverty was something best escaped through some miraculous circumstance.  For instance, Charlie Bucket escaped poverty by finding a golden ticket in his chocolate bar and surviving the maniacal factory trials of a mad capitalist by virtue of his….virtue.  The Beverly Hillbillies escaped poverty by finding oil on their property.  Following this theme, I was convinced that we would escape poverty by finding a valuable rock.  This happened twice.


The swampy yard of my childhood featured at least two large rocks.  I would climb on one of them, which was mossy and would have been a good location for a rock garden if it wasn’t set in a swamp or shade.  Another rock that captured my imagination was located inside the forest across from our driveway.  This rock was also located in one of many swampy pools near our home which was ideal for finding frogs in the spring, but would dry up by summer.  Something about that particular rock captured by imagination.  It was gray and jagged.  Like the other rock, it was large enough to sit and play on.  Perhaps because it was deeper in the woods, surrounded by ferns and other prehistoric plants,  half submerged in a vernal pool, I imagined it was associated with dinosaurs.  I imagined that the rock had something to do with the extinction of the dinosaurs.  It became obvious to my mind that it was in fact, a meteor.  I knew, on a scientific level, that meteors are rare and valuable, so I decided that this was going to be our golden ticket out of poverty.   On a superstitious level, whenever we saw a meteor streak across the sky, my mother told us to say “money, money, money” as fast as we could, until it disappeared and perhaps money would come our way.  I was always disappointed that they never lasted long enough to say the incantation more than a few times, if any at all.  Money certainly never came of it.  In any event, I convinced my brother that it was a meteor.  It probably isn’t hard to stretch the imagination that far, since it was a large rock in the middle of a forest.  Obviously it got there somehow, so why not outer space?  My mind was not geologically grounded enough to consider glaciers.  My brother and I dragged my mother out to this meteor, convinced that it was going to make us some money.  She followed us to the rock.   Maybe she cautiously hoped that we had indeed stumbled upon something of value.  Just like Antique Roadshow, undiscovered wealth was waiting to be found.  I showed her the rock and explained the characteristics that clearly made it a meteor.  It wasn’t.  I don’t remember what happened after we brought her into the woods.  But, we never became wealthy from it and eventually I forgot about the rock and stopped playing in the woods.

Image result for rock with dinosaur toys

A random image of dinosaurs on a rock from FreePic


The second rock incident happened much later.  I went on a road trip to Thunder Bay, Ontario with my grandmother, brother, and mother.  I was about fourteen years old.  On the way back, we stopped at a rest stop or overlook, and I saw a large, clay colored rock.  I was convinced that this was an agate.  I suppose traveling up the North Shore of Lake Superior I had agates on the brain.  I convinced my brother that it was an agate.  Although it was dull and reddish brown, I was sure that if we loaded it into the car, then cracked it open, it would split into two perfect agate geodes.  The otherwise dull colored rock had a specks that glistened in the sun, which to me indicated that it was secretly an agate.   This was around the time my parents divorced and we were moving on to a new life in a low income apartment, on food stamps, in a new single parent household in Isanti, MN.  A magnificent agate would have been a huge help.  My mother was reluctant, but once again I got my brother on board.  We both convinced her to load the forty or fifty pound rock into our vehicle.  After all, we couldn’t possibly leave this opportunity for wealth behind.  It road around in our vehicle for months.  Eventually, my mother asked a rock collector at the county fair about it.  The expert scoffed at the idea that we would find such large agate.   But, we didn’t know how agates formed or how they would have broken up into smaller pieces over time.  I was disappointed that it was….just a rock.  It was a rock and an unwanted passenger in the backseat of our car.  I think we eventually rolled the rock onto the lawn of our low income apartment complex, which upset the management.  The last I remember was seeing it rolled up against a tree by the parking lot.  Did we get into trouble?  Did they make us move it?  Did they know it was our rock?  I don’t know.  I just know that once again, we pinned our hopes on a mineral miracle. Image result for agate geode

What I imagined we would find inside the rock….

              

I’ve been thinking about these stories lately.   It seems foolish that I believed, on more than one occasion, that we could escape poverty by finding valuable rocks.   But, these ideas are really no different than some of the other faulty thinking regarding poverty or social class.  For one, the idea of discovering something valuable to escape poverty is a common narrative in society.   I already mentioned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,  The Antique Roadshow, and Beverly Hillbillies.  Any story involving hidden treasure similarly follows the notion that wealth is out there waiting to be found.   Lottery tickets similarly create the notion that wealth is out there.  It is just a matter of the right numbers at the right time….and SOMEONE has to win.  Even if the odds are low, it COULD be you if you just participate.   The Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes also reinforces the faulty thinking that wealth is something that can unexpectedly happen.  Game shows also promote this idea, as contestants compete for money or prizes.   Of course, some skill might be involved, but a person’s ability to solve word puzzles, guess the correct price, or answer trivia questions is generally not a surefire way to make it ahead in society.  In another example, one of my favorite children’s stories was called Silly Simon, about a foolish young man who was abused by his mother and could never do anything right, until his silly antics caused a princess to laugh.  He was awarded gold from a king for this feat.   This teaches that wealth is something that can happen in just the right circumstances or with a not so useful skill-set that suddenly has value.   Another common trope is the orphan who is adopted into wealth, such as Annie, Oliver Twist, or a low rated TV show that aired when I was a child called Rags to Riches.  At least I never once imagined escaping poverty through adoption!   I grew up in a world informed by Publishers Clearing House, scratch tickets, stories of orphans and treasures, game shows, etc.  At the same time, never once did my pre-college formal education tackle the topic of causes of poverty.   This is a disservice to children, who are often bullied for their social class.  I remember my brother was once upset that a classmate of his (in Isanti) said that our family lived in the dumpster by the school.  I remember a classmate (in Cambridge) picking on my family for using food stamps and another teasing me because my family didn’t own our own washing machine (which I hadn’t even considered a sign of poverty until teased for it.  I liked going to the laundromat).   If children are not raised to understand social class, then being poor is mysterious and easy to blame on lack of luck or some kind of flaw.

Image result for silly simon


Even as I entered college, I really didn’t understand class.  I felt embarrassed that everyone else seemed to have stories about going on vacations that involved sailing in Greece or backpacking in Europe.   I didn’t want to talk about myself.  (Of course, at this point in my life I have traveled a lot, but upon graduating high school I had never been on a plane and felt jealous when I met college students who had studied abroad in high school or went on elaborate family vacations.  I felt less than them!  That this was not a matter of money, but that I wasn’t “good enough” to have these opportunities.  But, these feelings motivated me to prioritize travel).  I felt ashamed that my parents were not doctors, professors, business owners, lawyers, or any of the other prestigious professions that other students’ parents seemed to have.  I felt that there was something wrong with me and my family.  I felt that I was inferior.  That if I was smarter, more attractive, harder working, more talented, more outgoing, less strange, or any number of other qualities, that I too would have an exciting and successful life.  So, rather than analyze the difference between myself and other students I met as a matter of socioeconomics, I felt that I was defective.   Internalizing being poor as a flaw or a failure was just as faulty as believing that wealth could come from meteors (or lottery tickets, sweepstakes, game shows, etc.).  Yet, this is more insidious and pervasive.  It is something that I believe to some degree even to this day.  Being poor….it did make me flawed!   I have crooked teeth because we couldn’t afford braces.  I have a crooked spine as well.  We didn’t have access or an understanding of psychology, so some of these needs also went unmet or unknown.  So, I am not the optimal person I might have been in other socioeconomic circumstances.  Certainly, I am a passable person and everyone has flaws.  Yet, for all of my passion for learning, all of my talent, hard work, or any number of positive attributes, I will never be “living my best life.”   In parts, I am to blame.  A scarcity mindset prevents me from taking too many risks or living too freely.  I will never feel empowered to quit a job I don’t like or make major life changes because in the back of my mind, I know that there is a lot to lose and fear of going without. Image result for living my best life

Yeah, not really.  But life is….okay.


The narrative of self-determination  is perhaps the hardest one to overcome.  I can rationally conclude that success does not come from meteors, agates, game shows, or lottery tickets.  Yet, I have not quite abandoned the notion that with hard work, education, talent, risk taking, determination, etc. I should be able to accomplish my goals and dreams.   This is the narrative that our educational systems socialize us to believe in the most, as in the context of capitalism, educational systems need to justify their own existence by promising that education can help us become self-actualized, successful people.   So, this is why I find myself up against a rock and a hard place.   This is also why I think we need to be careful about what kinds of stories we tell ourselves about class.   We must abandon the language of “living the best the best life,” goal digging, girl bosses, slaying and narratives of self-made successes.   This isn’t to argue that everyone should adopt “learned helpnessness” or the idea that nothing we do has an impact on our environment or life outcomes.   Instead, I think that narratives about upward mobility or class should be tempered by socioeconomic realities rather than individual efforts.  This itself is contested, as conclusions about upward mobility vary depending upon how this is measured and defined.   For instance, the U.S. Treasury Department posits that upward mobility is a reality for low income Americans, who on average see their incomes rise over time as measured by tax returns.  If one defines upward mobility as entering a new tax quintile, then yes, upward mobility is possible.   Marxists define things more broadly, as class is about a relationship to production.  A quintile increase in taxed income may not translate to increased access and control of capital.  Because upward mobility is not operationalized by Marxists as increased status or income, social mobility is less common in socialist interpretations.  In this broader view, capitalism itself is prone to instability and declining rates of profit over time, so income gains are never a given and always challenged by a profit motive that is inherently at odds with high or even stable standards of living for most workers.  But, one does not need to be a Marxist to understand that life is limited by class, and compounding this, it is limited by gender, race, sexuality, ability, etc.  It is also limited by job availability, unemployment trends, globalization, new technology, etc.  You can work very hard, have many talents, educate yourself extensively, make all the right choices, and you can still end up working menial, unrewarding jobs in which you worry about retirement and live paycheck to paycheck.


It was foolish for me to think that we would find money in the form of a meteor or an agate.  Even if we had, that money would not have sustained us for long.  I had so much hope back then.  But, of course, this is false hope and wishful thinking.  My favorite quote is “We must prefer a real hell to an imaginary paradise” by Simone Weil.  Of course, she was probably talking about some spiritual nonsense, but I have always interpreted it as it is better to think clearly without hope, than have false hope in ignorance.  Unfortunately, there is not a lot of hope that most working people will have a windfall of wealth, much less live their lives without economic hardship and worry.  There are no meteors, agates, winning lottery tickets, etc. to save us.  Even education, hard work, innovation, talent, etc. are not tickets to a better life.  A better life is secured through collective struggle, not individual efforts or accomplishments.  It is class struggle that shortens the workday, promises pensions, provides health care, mandates paid leave, and all of the other benefits that ACTUALLY do improve lives and creates opportunities.   Living our best lives is a function of the mass movements that seek to end war, protect the environment, provide public transportation, end police brutality, empower women, dismantle racism, etc.  So, I do have some hope, or at least, a methodology for betterment.

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