Nothing so vividly describes my brief and confusing stint as a revolutionary in the latter half of the ?70s as the lingering recollection of feeling enthusiastic and proud about being broke.
My $50-a-week job editing the local co-op newspaper left me with money for rice and beans after the rent was paid, but not much else. Of course, my young comrades weren?t exactly rolling in the dough, either. But that was OK, because we didn?t need filthy lucre. We?d constructed an entire community around the idea of voluntary poverty, a bubble in the local economy that contained all our wildest sociopolitical fantasies. We had community-controlled food co-ops, worker-owned restaurants and clothing stores, co-op housing, and a people?s clinic, everything good revolutionaries needed to sustain themselves for the long battle ahead. Everything except money.
This distaste for the dollar, of course, was nothing new. Yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman made headlines in the ?60s by scattering bills on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and starting a near riot. In Howl!, Allen Ginsberg wrote of burning all his money in a wastebasket.
Ginsberg, of course, sold his papers to Stanford University for nearly a million bucks. And though my literary output will never attract that much attention, I have somehow managed over the years to attain a life that, in the parlance of my former comrades, can only be called bourgeois. I own a house, for instance, and a car. It is, by almost any measure, a comfortable life?in many ways the kind of life coveted by the very people my former anti-bourgeois comrades and I were fighting to ?liberate.?
This irony was often lost on the revolutionaries of my day, a point made bluntly by Theodore Roszak in his seminal 1969 book, The Making of a Counter Culture: ?What, after all, does social justice mean to the outcast and dispossessed? Most obviously, it means gaining admission to everything from which middle-class selfishness excludes them.? Then, as now, progressives needed to deal with their own phobias about money if they really wanted to do the work of social change for any length of time?and with any degree of success. If you insist on embracing poverty in your own life, how do you become a credible advocate for folks who would do almost anything to escape it?
?Too many progressives look at money as inherently tainted,? writes Farai Chideya in a recent column for the online alternative news site AlterNet. ?We play a game of keep-away, bragging about who?s broke. Meanwhile, urban pop culture has no compunction about acknowledging the value of money. Many activists who presume to speak for the urban ?underclass? talk about upending the economic system, as if that?s what most people want. If our economy is a sinking ship, many would settle for a berth on the upper decks.?
Chideya argues that it?s time activists start to come clean about their money issues and begin to explore their own biases and anxieties. ?Were your mother and father paid a fair wage? Could they even get a job?? she writes. ?Money is not just about numbers. How we use or abuse it depends on our emotional, political, and historical perspectives.?
As long as progressives believe money to be inherently evil, or at least tainted, they are going to create underfunded organizations and slapdash campaigns that exploit their workers and send a message to the world that only the ?virtuous? need apply. Such a view betrays a ?profound lack of spiritual wisdom,? notes author and educator Bob Mandel in his 1994 book Wake Up to Wealth. ?Surely poverty is not the soil of the good life any more than money is the root of all evil,? he writes.
Indeed, Chideya argues that the truly revolutionary activist would embrace the dollar with great vigor and spread that enthusiasm liberally throughout the world. ?One of the most revolutionary things artists and activists could do is conduct their lives not as poverty crusades, all sackcloth and ashes, but as crusades to end poverty, including our own,? she writes. ?Learning how to manage money?and sharing that information with others?is transformative.?
Craig Cox is executive editor of Utne magazine.