I try to assume best intentions when I hear people say they want to “make a living” doing social justice work. I think, “Oh, they want to meet their basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) while doing liberation work. Cool!” But when I inquire further, they often correct me: they want to make money doing social justice or liberation work.
I think it’s perfectly reasonable to seek to meet our basic needs doing justice work. I wouldn’t call it easy, by any means, or without risk, but certainly possible, even probable. For example, squatting in any of the huge number of empty houses amidst the artificial scarcity of this ruinous economy is a perfectly acceptable way to obtain shelter and isn’t really more difficult or risky than renting or buying. It just entails different difficulties and risks — ones that many of don’t have much experience or familiarity with. Doing so also doesn’t endear us to dominate culture.
However, when people say that they want to make money doing social justice work, I hear them saying that they want to monetize social justice as a commodity for economic trade. Social justice to me means the destruction of all social hierarchies so that we can acheive a fair distribution of accountability and responsibility in society. Social justice requires, in part, the destruction and disappearance of our current, commodity-based for-profit economy because the economy requires social hierarchy to function. So I hear those people saying, in other words, “I want the systems whose destruction I ostensibly seek to provide for me while I work to destroy those systems.”
If I identified with or as the system, I would consider this to be a completely unreasonable request and enticing. “You want me to help support you as you work to destroy me? Fat chance!”
Yet, even though the request makes no sense on your part, I would gladly accept the offer. Here’s why: If I provide for you, you become dependent on me. If you become dependent on me, it means, rhetoric aside, at the end of the day, you affirm your allegiance to me. When talk becomes walk, you walk with me, not against me. Your revolutionary rhetoric starts looking a bit more reformist in practice. You file down your fangs (or they fall out from malnutrition). I have pacified and provided for you; you pose no threat to me. Plus, I provide just enough (artificial scarcity) to help keep you competing and fighting amongst would-be allies for my handouts and breadcrumbs. Your work for me becomes all-consuming, because I control when, where, how much. And if you complain, or organize against me, I simply replace you with any number of other people willing to work harder and longer than you for less. While you preoccupy yourself with horizontal aggression against would-be allies, I continue strengthening and expanding the base of my pyramid scheme to further ensure your obedience and entrapment.
In other words, people who want to “make a living” in this way have already internalized an allegiance to the very systems of oppression they say they want to challenge. All the system has to do is say, “yeah, sure.” And then it will provide for you, on its terms. And you will work for it, on its terms. You may not know it or feel it, but the sociopaths in charge do.
I see this sentiment often come from well-meaning people raised in the system and dependent on it, who refuse to question or break their dependency on the economic privilege it affords them. But such a sentiment leads to a life of misery, alienation, self-destruction.
So, what’s the alternative? When we identify and connect more directly with our basic needs, we increase our likelihood of satisfying them in two ways:
- First, it opens up a greater range of possibilities. For example, I can attain food through the vernacular economies of mutualism, reciprocity and barter, or I can beg/borrow/steal. Or I can forage, or produce. Or I can purchase. Just off the top of my head, a nine times increase in ways and means. Developing those skills leads toward personal growth and greater perspective and ultimately, a richer and more resilient life. However, if I am dependent on money, then purchasing remains my only option. The other options listed above require skills we must develop.
- Second, money will never satisfy many of our basic needs, and only partially satisfies others (e.g., most of the “food” for sale is complete crap in terms of quality, taste and nutrition). Money can’t buy us love and connection. It can’t buy us a sense of meaning and purpose. Increasingly, it can’t even buy us shelter. When we funnel our life’s pursuits through the pursuit of money, we buy into the myth that money provides, and it monopolizes our time. Without time, we cannot develop the skills necessary to break our dependence on the commodity economy. In fact, over generations, we have lost and continue to lose those skills. When we come home from our soul-sucking (social justice?) jobs and turn on the TV or video games or break open the bottles to cope, compensate, and numb ourselves to the existential agony we feel, we lose more time and opportunity to break the cycle.
So, to meet our needs and achieve self-actualization, we must break our dependence on the commodity system. Breaking our dependence on the commodity economy doesn’t mean complete disengagement from it. It means engaging on our terms — a complete reversal of the current power dynamic.
The commodity system and the sociopathic elite whom it serves will fight against this power reversal, even violently so, to retain or regain control. Here we see the battle lines with the system: squatting is illegal not because it can harm (yes, it can cause harm, but so can any number of legal things, like guns and hammers), but because it is an affront to the system’s ability to maintain dependency and control. And that’s what turns us into activists: because we love ourselves, we love one-another, we love the land, we seek to live fully-realized lives. And our attempts to live threaten the current system, which responds with coercive control. And, so, we, out of necessity, become activists. Not because we want to blow shit up or seek the destruction of things, but because the system threatens our liberation and prevents us from living fully-realized lives as long as it exists intact. As Jennai Bundock says, “We didn’t pick the fight. The fight picked us.”
And it all begins when we see money as simply one of many means to a greater end of meeting our basic needs.