Is Lucre Really That Filthy?

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.

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