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Economic thoughts

December 30, 2007

This afternoon, I worked on a crocheted sweater for our Little Monocular Princess. After a major unravel-and-redo, it’s looking pretty good (though not good enough for photos yet, since it still needs the hood made and attached). It’s made of bright salmon-coral chenille effect yarn, trimmed with slightly spangly variegated faux-fur eyelash stuff in complementary tones. As I remarked to DH last night, I’d really hesitate to dress a human child in such an OTT gender-stereotypical piece of clothing, but it’s entirely too hilarious to resist on a cat–particularly on one who acts unbelievably spoiled in a “sissy” way. Cats just don’t have the same overload of gender socialization as little humans, thank goodness!

And I selected the victim fairly well, BTW. Punkin peeved a little when I tried the hoodie-to-be on her for fit, but didn’t seem to mind at all once it was actually on. I’m not about to try to force Feist into any sort of clothing, because I know it would offend her. Punkin just doesn’t have the same brand of dignity to offend.

Yes, I did have a point other than that I’m sometimes very easily amused. While I was crocheting away, I idly considered a way of working crocheting a dog jacket (probably for an ill-tempered little feist) into a writing project that’s been on hiatus for way too long now. Thanks to the wonders of radial thinking–again–I came across one of those deceptively simple realizations: in a more humane economic system, crocheting a dog sweater would be considered “productive” work. So would any number of other things I still tend to consider ways of passing time, if not fairly unpleasant necessities, e.g. cleaning things around the house.

The patterns among ideas I’d been kicking around suddenly became far more obvious, as connections clicked together and I could see them more clearly. This is part of the fun of radial thinking, too; it may take me a while to form some connections that seem obvious to a more linear thinker–but once I do see how things fit together, I keep seeing more connections enmeshed in more patterns than the average linear thinker could spot or follow. (Just finding out that, indeed, that is one major division of ways people’s brains work has helped me feel much less crazy.)

Yeah, this sort of thing happens to me sometimes, and I usually wonder why I hadn’t noticed the way information fits together much earlier. Expressing the patterns in words, so that other people might understand them, is yet another matter, unfortunately. This is likely to be rough, but it’s my best attempt for now.

I’m not an economist; to be honest, especially with the dyscalculia, I never found economics particularly interesting. Now I place it in the same category as history: it pays to know something about the subject, if only to understand human behavior more clearly. There are also a lot of people who would prefer that the average person not know too much about it nor take much of an interest, which frequently has rather the opposite effect on me. At the moment, my main interest in economics is the way in which it reflects a given society’s attitudes and values. A society’s economic system can’t help but mirror its view of reality, and of the proper way to treat fellow creatures.

In what strikes me as a far saner economic system than the one we currently have going in the West, any activity that benefits other people (or their environment) is considered Real Work, rather than something to fill the time when one is not doing paid work. This would include needlework, washing dishes, fixing supper, gardening, doing scientific experiments, telling stories to enlighten and/or entertain, you name it. As long as it helps someone, directly or indirectly, it’s Real Work–and Important Work, at that. Any society would have serious trouble getting along without someone doing all these “little” things, and it’s only sensible to acknowledge it.

If a person has spent the day watering and weeding the garden, rigging up a twine trellis, taking care of pets, washing clothes, and procuring and preparing food, that person has had an extremely full and useful work day. The types of work involved are simply not valued to the point of that individual’s probably being classified as “economically inactive” in Western society. (I’ll get back to that one later.)

This, BTW, is another point on which my mother and I seem to have been speaking at cross purposes for years. One of the bad old boarding schools couldn’t have made a much better attempt at forced assimilation than the school system to which I was subjected. On one hand, there was the One Right and Proper (Western) Way, while on the other there were the ways my family and most of the people I knew looked at and did things. I am still working through that influence (and all its attendant internalized self-hatred) to make sense of things, though I think I’ve come a long way. At any rate, my mother did not have the same experience, and a lot of the things she and other family members have tried to teach me over the years have had a difficult time making it through that filter.

I fought it on rational grounds, but still felt like crap when I wasn’t “working”. I may have been staying busy all day, and been more exhausted than DH by the time he came home from “work”, but the tapes of laziness and uselessness kept running through my head. That was before I truly understood that those Westernized ways of thinking were purposely imposed on me, no matter the motives involved, and are not appropriate (a subject which warrants its own post). That was before I really understood what my family members had been talking about. They may have to do paid work now, but that is certainly not considered the most important kind of work people do. Where I’m from, still, you ask someone what they do, and the answer will rarely have anything to do with the person’s paid job. I was disconcerted at the flurry of “What do you do?” inquiries, with their set job-related answer, after I came to the U.K. I am sure I have frustrated my family and an untold number of British people, trying to get this sorted out in my head.

What I am trying to say there, beyond the background, is that I have seen a different and more humane economic system in action. (I could provide a rather long reading list for arguments in favor of similar, but would recommend starting with A Basic Call to Consciousness, most of which is helpfully online. I bought a printed copy.) As jibes with Barbara Mann’s excellent exposition in Iroquoian Women, a lot of Native people continue to use a Gifting-based economy among family and friends. I cannot recommend that book highly enough, if you’re interested in learning about Eastern Native cultures in general; the author’s area of expertise is Haudenosaunee society, but many of her points apply as well to related societies.

Some people may call me naïve–hey, I’ve sure been called worse–but I have to think that returning to a less destructive economic system is possible. It can work; it has certainly worked well before, and continues to work on a smaller scale despite repression. For this kind of system to work, though, most of the deep foundations of Western societies would have to change. A nearly unbelievable amount of Native political thought has worked its way into Western approaches by now, however, so I choose to believe that kind of change is within the realm of possibility. (For an overview, try Jack Weatherford’s Indian Givers. Ward Churchill, among others, has had plenty more to say about the dog’s breakfast Marx and Marxists have made of some very useful ideas, largely by trying to transplant them onto an incompatible base culture. Then there is the U.S. Constitution.) Who’d have thought they’d ever have incorporated the concept of individual rights?

To have different types of work considered of roughly equal importance, you’d have to do away with all sort of Bogus Hierarchical Crap and the motivations to keep it going. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t cry at the loss of classism, sexism, racism, and all the rest. You’d have to do away with the whole morass of oppositional dualist thinking, encouraging people to try to force-cram reality into sets of only two categories–and, of course, the one they place themselves in is automatically the Good one. You’d have to do away with the accompanying idea of life as a zero-sum game, in which there are always winners and losers–and there is never enough of anything to go around. The false scarcity ethic does more to set people against one another than almost anything else, and drives a frightening amount of destructive behavior (to the environment, to other people, to one’s self). All of these poisonous philosophies–surely they don’t help us humans, or anything else–fit together like a puzzle box, and they’d all have to go.

Another philosophical difference which definitely plays into economic differences is the society’s approach to giving and taking. Again, Barbara Mann approaches this exceedingly well, but it was Elizabeth Moon’s fiction–this issue was discussed in Surrender None, I believe–that really made the great contrast of approaches click for me, well before I read anything by Barbara off Mingo-L. The difference Moon sees is in what sort of power is perceived to be involved in any giving/taking transaction, and in where the balance is perceived to lie. Very briefly, in one culture, giving things to people is seen as a sign of strength–hey, the giver is the one with the food, or whatever, to distribute as they see fit–and incurs some obligation on the part of the taker. This culture encounters one in which the person taking things is considered to have the power, and voluntarily giving is a sign of weakness and/or deference. Power differentials are also far more important to the second group. Yeah, that scenario did sound horribly familiar, though I had never looked at it in those terms before. This difference in basic societal attitudes would have a lot to do with the status of women in said societies, as well. Barbara Mann has much to say on that aspect, tying into the wildly different ideas of what lies under concepts of “hospitality” and “generosity”. Those are some pretty profound cultural differences.

Yeah, thinking about the specifics makes me want to scream or weep, but I still try to believe that change for the better is possible. The situation is just too distressing otherwise.

Funny how things fit together. There are several more posts that want to branch off from this one, and with any luck I’ll find the time soon–along with better ability to describe concepts in words!

* Yes, there has been a lot of cognitive dissonance between the messages I got pounded into me at school, and what I actually saw going on around me. That’s been both maddening and helpful in a peculiarly sanity-saving way.

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