by dean spade
This year, since I entered grad school, I’ve been thinking more and more about what it means for me to change my class status, up my earning potential, exceed the education of level of all the people who raised me (and their bosses). I’ve been thinking about how to apply anti-poverty ethics to a life where suddenly the choice of wealth (by which I mean having more than I need), and all of the insane stuff that it entails may be before me soon. I’m familiar with navigating poverty while maintaining anti-poverty politics, but not with navigating the possession of or potential for wealth. Lots of things that I believe in that are really important to me will require different action if I’m suddenly making $35,000 a year or more rather than the $6-9000 I’ve been making for the past couple of years. My role in redistribution, how I exercise my critique of the different value that is given to different work, how I look at consumerism and greed, are all going to require careful consideration as my position changes. I feel pretty good about that, but I’m pretty stressed out about the fact that I don’t see anyone else engaging these questions.
Suddenly, as most of my friends enter their late 20’s and a lot of them, like me, are getting qualified to be better paid, greed and capitalism are replacing the firm anti-poverty values my friends purport to hold. I hold the basic belief that being rich is wrong. If some people are rich, others will be poor. It is the responsibility of the state and rich people to redistribute wealth equally (clearly they aren’t doing a good job). Similarly, because I don’t think that capitalism is meritocratic, with deserving hardworking people getting rich and lazy undeserving people getting poor, I don’t believe in the right of the rich to hoard wealth. Thus, I believe that if I make more money than I need, my anti-poverty morals and politics demand that I engage in redistributing, not hoarding that wealth.
Understanding that imperative, I face the issue of applying it to my life. There are a lot of obstacles, especially the fact that capitalism is in me. Its really hard to figure out questions like, how much is too much to have, what amount of “financial security” is reasonable and what amount is hoarding wealth, what is a necessity and what is a luxury. These questions are very subjective and slippery. Also, greed and consumerism make it hard to see the answers. The way capitalism works is that mostly everyone is convinced they don’t have enough, no matter how much they have. Every luxury presents itself as a necessity. Everyone is made to feel they deserve more for being a good person and that its not their job to redistribute. Television presents a “middle class” which is in fact an extremely wealthy class level which few can maintain, but all aspire to. Poverty remains invisible to most people, and where it is visible it is excused by an elaborate mythology which places the poor to blame for their poverty by pretending that everyone who tries and works hard can be rich despite extreme inequities in every area of life.
The project of figuring out how to live with anti-poverty politics in capitalism is one of the most important things I think I’m doing, yet there is almost no one to engage with about it. None of my role models, academics, lawyers, community activists, or teachers, live in a way that I would want to copy. In fact, when I broach this topic with most people, I hear them say stuff like “you shouldn’t be afraid to be well-compensated for good work.” Frequently I find out that they believe that they hardly make any money anyway because, like everyone, they compare themselves to people who make ridiculous amounts of money. Public interest lawyers, for example, always talk to me about how little I’ll make or they make, meaning $30 or 50,000, because they compare themselves to corporate lawyers who make (starting) $100,000 a year. That mentality is exactly what I want to get outside of. I want to actually think about what I can live off (like right now I feel pretty fancy living off of a $9,000/yr stipend from school, especially considering my mom raised 3 kids on $18,000/yr when we weren’t on public assistance).
But even people I know who work in anti-poverty fields, when I engage them in this conversation, act like “thinking we all have to be poor” is a naive concept I’ll grow out of once I can appreciate this concept of “financial security.” What is financial security? I think mostly its about hoarding. I do wonder a lot about whether I need to save money to support my family members who are old and still living paycheck to paycheck with no assets. Its another question of how much is enough, when does ‘security’ become an excuse for hoarding?
These are especially difficult issues to deal with because I realize I’m only encountering them because of how severely I’ve classed up, and my approach to them sets me apart from the people I come from. None of my family would think twice about getting rich and providing wealth for everyone they’re related to if they got the chance. So it feels weird to wonder whether these values are upper class values since they don’t look like lower class values, but then again they seem like nobody’s values. Watching my activisty friends become ok with the idea of being bourgie as soon as they get the chance is a major blow. I keep hearing them all say (in a kinda condescending tone like I’ll realize it soon too) “I’ve just realized that we don’t need to be poor.” Its like they’ve come out of some oppressive mind set or something, kinda self-helpy. It makes me sad and terrified that there will never be anyone to talk to about this and also wildly impressed with the pervasiveness of capitalist logic. They all really believe that since they work hard, and maybe even more since they do “good” work, they deserve wealth.
I’m not looking to develop some code about what you can and can’t have to live “right.” I don’t think there is some single answer to how to live and how to have redistributionist politics. I think that the process of making these choices will look different in everyone’s lives, depending on where they live, who they are obligated to care for, what they do for a living, where they come from, and what they expect from life. But I am desperate for a conversation around the rejection of wealth and money-hoarding. I can imagine people taking this on and teaching each other and talking to kids about greed in a complex way and actually coming up with some alternative ways of thinking about money besides greed--and not just in academic critiques of consumerism but in personal ways that involve what you actually buy every day and what’s in your bank account. I’m waiting for this conversation to take off.
dean spade wants to talk to you about money.
make one contents