Fending for Ourselves?

There are strong pressures in our society to keep us fending for ourselves rather than finding common purpose with our neighbors. Think about some of the beliefs we have been taught about economic success and failure:

Economic struggles are a reason for personal shame.
You are on your own.
Don’t talk about your economic reality with anyone else.
You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
Watch out for people less fortunate than yourself—they will want to take your stuff.
Government programs will encourage laziness.

Sound familiar? These beliefs go back a long time. Chip Berlet, author of Right-Wing Populism in America, writes that the anti-collective attitudes currently expressed in the Tea Party movement find their roots in earlier Protestant theologies of America.

“If you read Protestant sermons from the late 1800s, they sound like Glenn Beck on a good day. They’re anti-government, anti-collective, anti-union. The idea is that good Protestants don’t depend on the government. Individualism and hard work and capitalism are seen as a kind of package deal.”

He goes on to describe how our social safety net was not constructed until Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed back against the banks and financial sector during the depression. “That was a real change in how Americans looked at government.” And even then there was “a campaign against Roosevelt, claiming that big government was the road to socialism and fascism.” These fears had a basis in the socialist movements in Germany and Russia that had produced totalitarian governments during the 1930s and 40s.

Individualists propose that we let the market work it out. Give free reign to businesses and corporations with the expectation that, unencumbered, they will restore the economy to prosperity. Then, stock prices and jobs will rebound, and all will be well again.

Unfortunately, the problems with this analysis are extensive. One problem is that it ignores the vital scaffolding of common resources that we share and take for granted. Our economic and personal well-being is directly dependent upon things like good roads, traffic control, public transportation, community fire departments, and public schools; police protection, libraries, and public parks—all of these commonly held resources make our individual and corporate initiative possible. Yet they are not figured into the cost and benefit accounting in the market economy.

House Fire

Photo by dvs Licensed under Creative Commons

If these common resources are not protected, hazards abound. In 2010, a family in Tennessee lost their home to a fire because they had not paid their subscription cost to the local fire company. The fire fighters were under orders to let it burn down. Is that the future we want?

Another even more fundamental problem for the wellbeing of the human community is that we have treated the earth as a limitless resource to be used with no regard for future needs. Clean water, fresh air, thriving forests, and fertile soil are the underpinning of all economic and personal wellbeing, and human beings have been destroying them at an unprecedented speed. An economic model based on using up the water, air, forests, and soil is no longer feasible. An economic model based on continuous growth, as ours has been, is no longer feasible. There is only one earth, and its resources are finite. We cannot deal with this common crisis only as individuals.

Natural environmental limits are beginning to create tensions around the world. In just one of many examples, fierce battles are beginning to be waged over how we will manage increasing shortages of water in many places. While private interests are clamoring to control ownership of these resources, other are asserting that such fundamentals must belong to all Life. They cannot be separated and sold for the profit of a few.

Chip Berlet quotes from an Interview by David Barsamian, published in The Sun, November 2010: “Brewing Up Trouble: Chip Berlet on the Tea Party and the Rise of Right-Wing Populism”

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Economic Insecurity

Tree uprootedOur individualistic society has brought us to a time of increasing economic insecurity. In our culture, we are taught to keep our individual economic lives a secret—more than religion or politics or sex—we just don’t talk about our income or debt or other monetary realities. But millions of people have lost jobs, or have family members who cannot find jobs, or are struggling financially. We know that millions of families nationwide have lost their homes. Many people have had to cancel retirement because their savings were decimated by the stock market collapse. It has been a collective crisis.

In my own family, two sisters in Michigan lost their jobs within the last few years. One of them was about to get married, and so had the safety net of her new husband’s income. The other sister moved to my parent’s home in West Virginia, and though she found some part-time work for a while, she was left without income, health insurance, or other resources.

Jacob Hacker has written about how common insecurities have been increasingly shifted to individuals and families as many of our social institutions have been dismantled. For example, in 1980, the majority of employers at medium to large companies paid 100% of family health insurance. Now, less than a quarter do. Medical costs were a factor in as many as 700,000 personal bankruptcies in 2001, and that situation has only gotten worse. Employer pension plans are declining and more and more families are on their own to figure out retirement options.

Fewer workers have long-term employment, and more and more are working in temporary or low-paying underemployment. Wages have been stagnant or falling, and more households have had to rely on two incomes to cover the same needs. Parents with children are most at risk for bankruptcy and foreclosure, and single parents are especially vulnerable. Support systems such as extended families are disrupted by geographic distance.

In the midst of these economic insecurities, there are basically two paths before us—in one, we each hunker down, and try to fend for ourselves as individuals and families. In the other, we turn to our neighbors, and make a common purpose to find a way forward. Ultimately, I believe the path of common purpose is the only one that will help us survive.

Figures from Jacob Hacker, The Great Risk Shift

Born to Belonging

Excluded, Photo by Juan Ferr Alvarez, Flickr Creative Commons

Excluded, Photo by Juan Ferr Alvarez, Flickr Creative Commons

Have you ever felt on the outside of the circle? When I was in third grade, I went to a new school in the middle of the year. It was a Catholic school and when I arrived everyone was in church waiting for morning Mass. I went into the church but I had no clue what to do next. Everyone seemed to be sitting in groups by classes, but I didn’t know where I belonged.

I tentatively edged down into one pew, but the child next to me said, “This is for fifth graders, you don’t belong here.” I tried to move to another spot without being noticed. Again, the child near me looked askance: “You’re not a sixth grader!” I moved to yet another pew, with similar results. I was scared and embarrassed and out of place: I had no way to know where to go. Finally, one of the teachers noticed me, and brought me to where the third graders were supposed to sit.

It was a minor incident, yet a frightening moment of dislocation for a small child. Because my family moved frequently when I was young, that dislocation repeated itself often, and I was left with an unsettled feeling in my heart. I was left with perennial questions: How do we know if we belong or if we do not? What must we do to belong? Perhaps it was those moments of dislocation that made me aware just how important community is.

Activist and writer Mab Segrest wrote about a South African word that describes this essential need for community: ubuntu. “Ubuntu translates as ‘born to belonging.’” Ubuntu expresses the African idea that our human dignity and fulfillment is dependent upon our links to each other in community.

In contrast, our modern American society bases itself on the idea of individualism. John Locke formulated a theory of society as a contractual type of relationship freely entered into by individuals. Locke proposed that in the original state of nature, all humans were free and autonomous individuals, and from that state, they agreed to give up certain aspects of their independence, for mutual benefit and protection.

Today, this individualistic understanding is endemic. But Mab Segrest challenges individualism, and she begins her argument with the experience of motherhood. She writes,

It was after watching Barbara give birth to our daughter, Annie, …that it occurred to me the degree to which this Original Individual was a ridiculously transparent …fiction. None of us start out as individuals, but as fusions of sperm and egg, embedded and growing in the mother’s body for nine months. For months after birth, our consciousness is still merged with its environment, and a sense of the particular and separate self emerges only gradually.2

We start out in relationship, and our unique individuality grows out of that circle of relatedness. Not the other way around. We all need each other in order to flourish and to thrive in life.

To give Locke and others their due—the philosophy of individualism was created in rebellion against the authoritarian structures of an earlier age, the tyranny of church and monarch. To affirm relationship is not to deny the importance of human dignity and freedom. But we must recognize that relatedness comes first, and within that circle of relatedness, we find our inherent worth and dignity.

Quotes from Mab Segrest, Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice, (Rutgers University Press, 2002) p. 2.