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Money. The commodity that shapes our lives. The key to full engagement in society (it seems) and the source of so much stress. We’re constantly told it’s getting harder and harder to make money, keep money and save money in our Australian context. Part of me wonders whether the popular media’s constant repetition of this fact isn’t also part of the problem. To constantly remind people who are struggling that they’re struggling doesn’t build their creative resilience or add to their resources, does it?
PRESENT BUT EXCLUDED
In her book, The Salt Path, Raynor Winn tells how she and her husband were made homeless after losing a lengthy court case. With no access to legal representation, the Winns lost everything – home, farm, income – to a shonky business investment. This was all the more galling because their downfall was instigated by a trusted ‘friend’. In their fifties, with adult children at university, the Winns had nothing left.
To make matters incalculably worse, the week after the court loss, Winn’s husband was diagnosed with a degenerative terminal disease. In desperation, in shock – with no idea of what to do or where to go – the couple decided to walk the Coast Path, a 630 mile trail (about 1013 kilometres) along the English coastline. They packed the bare essentials for ‘wild camping’ along the way, planning to survive off their semi-regular 48–pound housing assistance payment.
Amongst her reflections, Winn interrogates the social stigma of homelessness. She learnt early on her trek not to confess homelessness to others, as this immediately stripped away strangers’ respect or kindness. It was as though Winn and her husband’s financial losses somehow transformed them into ‘bad’ people, unworthy of compassion, deserving of their fate – and a frightening source of moral or social contagion. The hardworking Winns had become outsiders, excluded from respectable society. Without money, Winn reflects, she could be physically close to others while in fact entirely isolated. No money, no respect, no dignity, no participation. While Winn describes the situation in Britain, there are plenty of parallels with the Australian context.
Why are things this way? Why is money so often the key to social participation? And why does social participation matter so much?
It’s common to think of human beings as unique individuals, and we are – each operating out of our own distinctive subjectivity, through a nexus of genetics and environment that is unlikely to be repeated. And the development of rights for human beings as individuals has been a crucial development in recent human history. But we also know that it’s complicated for those rights to be made real. And that’s because individuals are part of multi-layered social groups that start small – the family – and extend outward, to communities, wider civil society and to nations. Our social groups also involve race, gender, religion, geographical region and culture.
In nineteenth-century Britain, the impactful development of scientific method and empirical observation led to a view of human beings that tended to analyse them in the same way as natural objects or forces might be analysed – where an objective, unmoved scientific observer recorded data about a material object which was best viewed in isolation from all disturbances. This approach to human life was in danger of atomising the human subject, severing it from its social connections. A group of British philosophers called ‘idealists’ argued that while the natural world could be observed and explained by breaking it down into its isolated, separate parts (or could it?) such an approach was not fitting for human subjects. (They were called ‘idealists’ not because they were concerned with ideals, but because they discussed thinking and ‘ideas’ – they knew that the human mind was a locus of meaning-making).
Drawing on the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel, thinkers like T. H. Green and William Wallace argued that human beings were social beings, formed by the groups they were part of. Freedom (which included responsibility) was a driving value in Hegelian philosophy, but the State (i.e. the nation) was responsible for making the freedom of its citizens concrete or real. For Green, this also meant that the State was responsible for the education of its citizens – the road by which people could make better lives for themselves. British idealist philosophers like Green revolutionised State education in Britain; they were philosophers of great social action. They knew that freedom – the flourishing of individuals – was a communal responsibility, attained through collective action.
When we are socially isolated or excluded, we don’t just lose connection to social groups; we lose parts of ourselves. Without respectful recognition from others – from family, social groups, wider civil society and the state – can we flourish? Think of the extreme vulnerability of those who come to Australian shores without any ‘papers’ – documents that legally validate their existence. While one’s legal identity or citizenship might be a liability or a constraint, it is simultaneously the key to recognition and social participation. And you can’t do much as an adult in Australia without a driver’s licence (or a Keypass ID) and a birth certificate.
This is where what’s now known as ‘toxic positivity’ can be problematic. No matter how many times you tell someone to “follow their dreams”, “believe in yourself” or “look on the bright side”, these injunctions are entirely misplaced if they don’t recognise the social structures that hold people in poverty or severely undermine their access to resources and social participation. It can be easy to forget that we are socially formed beings, a process that begins with our primary caregivers through our early attachment relationships, and continues in many directions as we grow, impacted by access to education, cultural formation and socio-political climate. Difficult social circumstances don’t determine a person’s future (to believe that they do is to believe in the chains of fate) – and of course, we all love stories of the underdog who defies all odds to rise and flourish. And we should believe in ourselves and follow our dreams – but we also need to recognise where oppression is systemic and where defensive attitudes towards others stop us from standing in solidarity with those who have copped a hard lot.
And social narratives shape how we feel about ourselves. I tried to be positive as a young mum at home with my babies, not working for the first year of their lives because (a) I was too absurdly tired, (b) because I was breastfeeding frequently and (c) because I believed that being at home would help my babies form strong, secure attachment relationships that would undergird a strength of bond that would be foundational for the rest of their lives. But to be honest, I felt completely worthless a lot of the time because I was not earning any money. Governmental and media narratives around GDP, the economy and unemployment made me feel that I was contributing nothing to wider society and was some kind of ‘bludger’. I told myself it was the opposite, that I was making one of the most important investments of my life, but I couldn’t ‘feel’ it or really believe it. And the stupid thing was, this feeling undercut my ability to invest myself in my parenting. We know of course, that caring roles are massively undervalued in our culture, but diligent care and compassionate relationships are the bedrock of a well-functioning, healthy society. We know that there is more to social participation than money. But sometimes, it doesn’t feel like it.
Governments are realising that GDP is a very narrow way of measuring a country’s current state; well-being is being recognised as a more holistic measure. We’re learning that money is a grossly skewed way of evaluating collective life, and that interaction becomes problematic and socially exclusive when money is the key lens through which we ascertain value, success and purpose in life.
But how do we change things at a grass-roots level? A national transition away from neo-liberal capitalism feels beyond the grasp of everyday people, but are there ways we can intervene into this situation in our daily lives?
Instead of a comprehensive solution or an injunction to ‘make a difference’, here is an anecdote. It is very simple, and probably not ground-breaking. But it draws on a context that has changed my experience of social participation and my sense of value.
Several years ago, inspired by her prolific Bramley apple tree (whose yields she could never hope to use up), a friend in my town began a produce swap. Once a month, she would set up tables outside the local shops (with permission) and invite whoever was interested to come and bring their own produce, taking from the table whatever caught their fancy.
Three years later, and an established rhythm has developed. From 10am, one Saturday a month, locals bring produce. If you have only a few sprigs of rosemary, you are just as welcome as if you bring a bucket of oranges, six dozen eggs and a freshly baked loaf of sourdough to share for morning tea. Everyone brings what they are able. Those whose gardens are in a dormant state might bring baked goods, cut flowers, seeds, empty jam jars, something hand-made or unwanted books, plants or magazines. The point is, everyone brings what they can afford to share. It is all laid out on tables, and contributions mix together in one large collection of gifts, a colourful patchwork of local riches.
At 11am, the bell rings. We are polite and considerate enough not to dive onto the products we’ve been eyeing off, knocking aside others in the process. The unspoken etiquette is to curb one’s enthusiasm and behave respectfully and with measure. And yet everyone always goes home overflowing with bounty, receiving beyond what they expected. Excess that may have been binned, flowers amongst many on a prolific bush that would have died unnoticed, seeds that may have fallen to the ground unheeded, take on a new value by being brought to the produce swap. We trade in joy.
When I told a work colleague once about the swap, she was surprised that people didn’t take more than they deserved. But what does that mean? No one deserves more than anyone else, no matter how big or small a contribution. That’s because there is always more than enough to go around, and the terms of belonging are not measured in quantity of goods proffered, but simply in willingness to participate. Besides, other swap members are always so glad to have contributed to others in need. So much so, that three free neighbourhood pantries have sprung up through the work of swap members.
Just like a library (another rare and beloved place where money doesn’t bar the way in or validate one’s place at the table), the produce swap levels the playing field. We bring what we have and we are happy to share. Money isn’t allowed and there’s something life-giving about that. It is thoroughly enriching. And there is solidarity. Everyone knows what hardship is. We share it and we help each other out. The community has strengthened, with members helping each other out in day-to-day ways, with skills and resources, beyond the monthly swap.
I don’t know how to solve the problem of social exclusion. I don’t know how to change our nation so that our relationships with money become healthier and less crushing. But I know that when I participate in the produce swap, I feel valued in a holistic way. I am strengthened to continue onward. And I always have something to offer and am invited to particpate, even when my bank balance is in single digits.
*With thanks to AB for the title.
Some sources informing this article:
- The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
- Philosophy of Right by G. W. F. Hegel, translated by T. M. Knox
- Philosophers as educational reformers by Peter Gordon and John White.
- Hegel’s Logic, by G. W. F. Hegel, translated and introduced by William Wallace.
- The Cost of Labour, by Natalie Kon-yu
- OECD.org – Centre on Well-being, Inclusion, Sustainability and Equal Opportunity (WISE)
- Various writings on attachment theory by John Bowlby and Mary Salter Ainsworth.