I am writing this while the evidence of inequality has exploded in the face of white America, like a flash grenade, and people who shouldn’t have to fight or die to be considered equal are taking to the streets to, once again, remind America that this country is based on racist ideologies. Those racist ideologies affect every aspect of their lives, and white America has continually benefitted from them.
For months now, I have felt called to look more closely at how we build economies, especially with an eye toward looking at how Indigenous people’s have historically managed their economies. I’m not in the streets. I’m keeping to this work. I may not reach many people, but I believe in the theory of morphic resonance, and that keeps me learning, researching and writing.
Right now, I am endeavoring to tackle this incredibly huge work by Thomas Piketty “Capital and Ideology”. Here’s a brief overview of the topics covered in this work. I have not read “Capital in the Twenty-first Century”, which means that I have no foundation from this previous work of his to build upon.
I’m not great at sticking with books, especially where the information is so cerebral. I have decided to take it slow. To read a few pages a day, capture some of my thoughts, and then let the ideas and facts presented take their time getting through my neural connections. I have tried to read other books on this subject, but I typically sour very quickly on authors who either, overtly minimize Indigenous economies, or covertly do so by refusing to give at least a momentary nod to how Indigenous economies thrived prior to colonization. That souring typically happens pretty early in my reading. Happily, I’m 20 pages in and I sense a humility in Piketty’s writing that gives me hope that, while he might not overtly address the economic strengths of Indigenous economies, he at least recognizes colonialism’s devastating effects on those economies and will try to do justice, at least implicatively, to that history .
For those who don’t know me, let me clearly state my biases. I will be looking at everything through a lens of Indigenous ways of being, including how economies were managed. I will be studying with a framework foundationally positioned on a belief that inequality in economies is a zero sum game for humanity, that ‘passive incomes’ have destroyed the compassion in humanity, and that politics should never be allowed to be controlled by small, elite groups of people.
So, here we go.
Notes from page 20 of “Capital and Ideology”
Up to this point (which is still the Introduction), Piketty has stated at least twice that economic alternatives are possible.
“If there is a lesson to be learned from the past three centuries of world history, it is that human history is not linear. It is wrong to assume that every change will always be for the best or that free competition between states and among economic actors will somehow miraculously lead to universal social harmony. Progress exists, but it is a struggle and it depends above all on rational analysis of historical changes and all their consequences, positive as well as negative.”
“Progress exists, but it is a struggle…” Let me be clear here. The struggle of people who are suffering the most from economic inequality should not be minimized in any way. Neither should they be asked to carry the full burden of that struggle in trying to attain economic equity. People who benefit from economic inequity should change direction and start doing the hard work of trying to right this ship. We have a responsibility to roll up our damn sleeves and get to the work.
Piketty makes the case for a more sober and clear-eyed analysis of the historical changes that have led to this current economic reality. Further clarifying, Piketty makes the case that historians and social scientists must be allowed to participate, if not lead, the work and quit leaving it to the exclusive purview of economists and politicians. (Right here I am exercising great restraint in not diverting into a rant about economists and politicians. You’re welcome.)
This is the current economic reality.
This data is based on Piketty’s work with the World Inequality Database. Maybe you have heard about the “Top 1%” and the inequality that exists. This graph is one of the most grounding pieces of scholarly evidence I have seen. It’s not the only piece of evidence, for the real life experiences of people who live at or near subsistence incomes can attest to the daily pressure of economic inequality, and should be brought into account. The fact that we have to plead with our elected officials to extend moratoriums on practices which harm people, allowing them to be evicted and utilities shut-off without consideration is another piece of real life evidence of ‘the rich get richer’.
When I view this piece of evidence, I am even more curious about Indigenous economies, especially pre-contact. The little evidence I have regarding how North American tribes distributed their wealth affirms for me that their economies were ensouled. Meaning, they considered all the aspects of human behavior and needs into consideration when codifying their economic principles. Potlatches are one example, and I’m building a database of academic and traditional references to other examples.
Piketty states it is wrong (I would say foolish) “to assume that …. free competition between states and among economic actors will somehow lead to universal social harmony.” The key phrase, I believe is “free competition”. To my mind, the implication in this phrase is that ‘free’ in “free competition” doesn’t embrace the egalitarian meaning of ‘free’. This “free competition” that economists and politicians strive for comes at great cost for people who can scarcely afford to lose that which is sacrificed in the name of “free competition”. In fact, economists and politicians use “free” when they really mean unencumbered of regulations and moral considerations.
If we agree to refuse to ‘assume’ that “free competition” somehow leads to social harmony AND we can come to terms with the fact that social harmony requires struggle, might we finally be able to put feet on a path to an economic alternative that leads us closer to equitable economies and social harmony? Can we come to terms with the reality that struggle will be our constant companion, not only moving TOWARD that economic reality but in MAINTAINING that economic reality?
I’m not yet convinced. Full disclosure, I consider the last 20 years of my life as having unfolded pretty gracefully and free of the financial struggle that I experienced during the previous 20 years (meaning, late teens through my mid-thirties). I keep with me the memory of trying to make the difficult decision between paying a car payment or paying the light bill. The imprint poverty leaves is formidable.
Am I in a hurry to return to struggle? Not necessarily, but knowing that I have survived it in the past helps in situating my moral decisions as they pertain to money. That imprint also helps fuel my distaste for the pervasiveness of passive income as an economic principle of wealth-building on an individual basis.
How many people are willing to pay that price in order to attain economic equality? I don’t know that a lot of people have the ‘stomach’ for it. And if the people who can afford to struggle can’t ‘stomach’ the reality of struggle, neither will the politicians or economists, as many of them live and spend in close proximity to the 1%.
This theme of struggle came up for me yesterday during my meditation with a thunderstorm rolling through. As I watched the clouds transform from moment to moment, mesmerizing me by their beauty and power, lightning dancing through the sky and the soul-shaking thunder reverberating off trees, I remembered a book sitting on my bookshelf for several years. I’ve never read all the chapters in the book, so I found myself drawn to the last two chapters of “Weather Shamanism”, where the authors discussed the responsibility of people who are working to rebuild the reciprocal relationships between humans and their environment, working to understand weather as a relative. This work comes with a responsibility to not “play” but to be serious in dedication and time.
They offer wise words from a Coast Salish master storyteller named Johnny Moses on the subject of suffering. “Moses describes his people’s meaning for the word suffering as not ‘a negative thing; it refers to forces that are pressing or pushing on us that we can feel very strongly. Suffering helps us become strong so that we can withstand the winds and storms of life.'”
Struggle, energetically, is a creative energy. Where there is no tension, no growth happens. I will be contemplating what this really means for us. I am hopeful that Piketty will provide some insight/evidence with regard to what he considers ‘struggle’ and what we can do to embrace this principle as a way to move toward equitable economies. The 1% and passively wealthy can afford to struggle a little bit.