When I was a kid living in an apartment building within the rural areas that would soon consider themselves suburban Chicago, I would sometimes reveal to my mom that I felt poor. One night I told her that I was envious of some kid that had nice clothes and a quiet car. My mom shut off the electric stove and hurled me into her Chevy Cavalier for a drive to the middle-class areas of Grayslake, Illinois, where she took me on tour of what was and was not behind the cheap windows of the cookie-cutter houses of the “nouveau riche.” We visited a new subdivision, which was still mostly a construction site, built directly on top of wetlands and marsh. It was dinnertime or just after in the twenty houses that had been built. We parked in front of a tricked-out house on Lexington Avenue, where each separate room was lit up by a different TV.
My mom pointed and said: “Look at those miserable people!” They have so much money, but they are still alone and suffering! We’re miserable too, but they probably don’t even talk to each other!”
My mother’s (existential?) philosophical performances usually ended in a long drive home, and an apology on behalf of everyone who’s ever lived: she never wanted to bring me into a world where everyone is suffering like it’s a full-time job. For her, the apocalypse had arrived long ago, and it meant she had to work at terrible jobs where the main protocol was to “stay busy” while wearing loads of makeup. To comfort my sobs she would remind me, “all you have is yourself.”
This was 1995, the eve of the subprime lending revolution in the Chicagoland area. We would eventually move to Lexington Avenue for a year, claim bankruptcy, and have our own pastel cookie-cutter house foreclosed.
Solidarity, the Known Unknown
A 2010 study by the San Francisco Federal Reserve reveals that the risk of suicide increases when people who earn a lower income live within a wealthier community. “Interpersonal income comparisons” generate scenarios in which one person attempts to keep up with the Jones’, and a poor person’s competition with the wealthy defines the value of their life. In this scenario having less money is a type of death.
I wonder what a post-individualism feminist economy looks like, and if I can be trusted to imagine it?
As a feminist economist, artist, and financial subject (equipped with the financial literacy training from my mother), I am obsessed with proving that the person who I am supposed to want to be (a ghost person in a nice house with a quiet car) also feels like a miserable failure (alone at night watching TV, as per my childhood education). I’m on a perpetual search for solidarity with the supposed “winners” of the game of financial self-management and brutal normativity we are all forced to play. I want to see the soft dark rotten areas in the lives of the wealthy because it makes me feel like less of a loser.
The tendency comes as much out of spite and competition, as it does out of love and hope for a collective overturning of everything. By looking into the sour areas in the lives of the wealthy, we might debunk our belief that a wealthy life is the end goal, or that it is even necessarily desirable. Where there is power, money, or both, there is also misery and vulnerability because we must debunk our overvaluation of financial wealth (we have no choice). But simply deflating the notion of wealth isn’t going to make rich people want to share, or upturn an individuating system of value into a communal one. It’s not going to forestall this apocalypse. When you feel powerless and poor, it’s hard to imagine that anything can be done.
My training as a losing economic subject has led me to a territory called feminist economics, which I want to see as a collective practice, and which I can describe in painful detail, but which I cannot yet embody. I associate feminist economics with a kind of collective experience that could reconstitute our idea and experience of risk. Instead of constantly risking everything to survive as individuals economically, we might use our energy to take risks to make collective experiences of steadfast and deep solidarity, wherein success is measured differently—outside of GDP or income bracket.
However, I would characterize this moment as one where my hard-won skills and talents as a self-reliant careerist and a stand-alone survivor might actually work against the practices of a true feminist economist, which would be based on collectively reimagining value. Unfortunately my expertise as a financial survivor has taught me to put myself first in a defensive mode against the predatory economy that wants to suck me dry, and I don’t yet know how to be another way. In the introduction to Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant admits that the entire book comes through her as a proprioceptive writing—a response that is preconscious, almost muscular—wherein she is a subject who has survived, with scars, the violence of the circumstances she now describes. As an affected subject, I wonder what a post-individualism feminist economy looks like, and if I can be trusted to imagine it?
The goal [of financial industry] is to keep us on the hook until we die, and even beyond the grave…
– Andrew Ross, Creditocracy (2014)
It is important to remind ourselves that a malevolent economic system does not serve life or living–it extracts profit from the people it is meant to serve. Perhaps by identifying financialization as characteristic of the era in which we live, wherein all businesses, services and people are valued by their ability to make money through financial investments instead of from the production of goods, services, social benefits or other forms of value, we are better able to see that malevolence as a system outside of ourselves, and to reject it rather than internalize it.
One byproduct of financialization occurs when social necessary industries like healthcare, housing, and education are measured by their ability to generate profit rather than their function in their intended area of service. We are not financial instruments, and the way that life-supporting infrastructures are motivated by profit is not natural or permanent. Our public infrastructure was not always failing, city budgets did not always rely on police to raise money by taking more people to court, and healthcare, education, and housing were not always too expensive for regular people to afford. Neoliberal economic indoctrination has us believing that we should always be working, progressing, and never looking back; we should not have time for non-economic activity, nor for remembering that there are alternatives to this system. In fact, living in a major North American city ensures that we won’t be able to do much more than work, due to the cost of rent (which increased over two-hundred percent in six years in San Francisco). But the most debilitating by-product of the current economic agenda is that it completely fills our waking hours with work, which is more and more without contract, freelance, a gig, performed alone. If we were to stop producing money, to stop growing our human capital, we would die. Is this true? This set of circumstances teaches us that we can only afford to take care of our individual selves—that we are alone.
This situation is not the same for all of us. While we are all embroiled in this financialized war of class and race, some of us are privileged enough not to feel we have a gun to our heads. There are many forms of direct and indirect violence alive in this financialized moment in the US, the wealthiest society on the planet. My work has largely focussed on people (people like me) who are slowly drowning but struggling to stay afloat, who encounter a form of wrenching stasis and existential anguish in spite of their relatively privileged position.
Among us, I want to articulate a silent choice we are almost always making. In the midst of police violence, deportation, homelessness, and unjust incarceration, we keep paying rent and going to work, pursuing the impossible task of managing our personal risks in a world where the risks are too big and too systemic for us to ever actually succeed. We don’t see this as a choice, because it seems impossible to sacrifice our access to our means of survival under financialized capitalism by reaching for an uncharted experience of collectivity and care and mutual aid, abandoning the idea that we can become successful capitalist subjects. How could we let go of what we know are our false and deadly dreams of individual success within this murderous system to construct a yet-unimaginable social world that is organized around people and care?
Even when we make other options transparent, verging on viable, most of us will continue to work to secure a life that is expensive to us (to our health, the planet, socially and financially), but that is familiar and comfortably uncomfortable. In the US, the cost of living is so high that to change our lives, to turn outwards towards the collective, towards protection, feels as if it would cost everything we have and know, even if what we have is mostly debt and what we know is mostly confusion and anxiety. It is a vicious cycle. In our individualized quests to use financial measures to secure our housing, healthcare, and education we have learned these lessons of self-sabotage: we are powerless, failures that can’t do anything right but maybe make money which will, after all, disappear.
Counter-Professional Surveying Practices for Observing Failure
Perhaps it was because I was always exploring financial crisis in my work that I contracted myself to become my own subject of study—deeply precarious in almost every direction, without stable housing, work, health care, family, culture, or community. Americans who experience a medical emergency or death of a loved one are the most likely candidates to file for bankruptcy or lose their homes to foreclosure. In 2015 when my dad died, I missed work and didn’t have any money for rent. I understood intellectually that my experience of his death and its repercussions were connected to a broader moment of political, social, and economic apocalypse. Still, the panic that arose from not having money in my bank account was a cry even louder than the loss I experienced. Rolled into my bank account was my tenuous access to my home, my sense of self-worth, my sense of being a failure or a success, my ability to function socially, and the start-up money I needed in order to get work.
I wanted to learn that I was not alone in my misery. I knew the precarity I experienced was common among other people in my life–though it was invisible. I wanted a way to get people to open up about things they felt too vulnerable to speak of, things that no one would ever even ask. I was afraid of talking, so I made a survey that could expose how friends deal with the growing lack of conceptual and material stability. I wanted to learn who else was as uncomfortable in the world as I was, and to hold them closer. This survey was not objective, planned, or designed to deliver useful results. It was a cry for help.
For today, we’ll look at responses to two questions:
- How often do you run out of money? If you do run out, how do you feel, and what does it cause you to do? Internally and externally.
- What forms of economic self defense do you practice? From scams to jobs, how do you get money?
What the survey reveals is not quantifiable, nor does it provide any economic measurement. It reveals that survival is difficult because underneath a lack of material resources there is not a culture of meaningful participation in shared struggle. When the money is gone, or the work is unavailable, there is nothing safe to fall into. Every failure is a turning point at which the individual has to: pick up and leave town, hide at home, spend day and night hustling, or draw tarot cards to give them a vision of a new way to survive. Occasionally someone takes care of another one, but this is at their own risk–not distributed amongst a community. This mode of individual survival has come to seem so normal, so obvious.
But it’s not working. As each person describes their financial problems, inventions, and inner struggles, they describe how they have been working through the difficulty of material survival in relative isolation, going into economic defence as a lone soldier, or sliding into obscurity with only little sparks of assistance from others. In the cases of those who have not run out of money, it is a rare moment when they see their money as a resource to help others, or a collectively held asset.
I invited men from Fiverr, a website for contracting freelance services, to perform some of the responses to the two most blatantly economic questions in the survey. The decision to deliver the responses in this way was based in my own curiosity—I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to see men articulate economic or emotional vulnerability, or openly offer detailed advice, share experiences, or to express a desire for solidarity in this way. All in all, my request was rejected by five out of the twenty men that I requested to make testimonials. Their rejection came in one-to-two sentences. They kept it professional by saying that they simply do not perform “this type” of material.
The request I made to the men working on Fiverr acts as a survey with different significance than the original one. If the survey I gave to women and femmes inherently asked, “How are you surviving in this fucked up world, and are you as uncomfortable as I am?” then the survey for men said “Do you have the courage to allow someone else’s suffering to enter your body and your online profile?”
We need a different way to understand and value our world and culture; we need to centre life, not capital; we need to practice real solidarity. This is feminist economics, and the only way to find it will involve collective economic disobedience.
The body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression – particularly our current regime of neoliberal, white-supremacist, imperial-capitalist, cis-hetero-patriarchy. It is that all of our bodies and minds carry the historical trauma of this, that it is the world itself that is making and keeping us sick.
-Johanna Hedva, “Sick Woman Theory” (2016)
I want a feminist economics that acknowledges trauma and asks the undercommoners who are tired, hiding, scared, or in bed now, who have been stolen from, ignored and violated, what could be offered to repair what has been broken by power and finance–and how. I want it to offer the logic and support to stop the man who insists that the corporate healthcare model is working when, by all measures, exploitation, injustice, inequality and sickness are growing. We need a different way to understand and value our world and culture; we need to centre life, not capital; we need to practice real solidarity. This is feminist economics, and the only way to find it will involve collective economic disobedience.
Economic disobedience can take many shapes, and as an individual, you can do it alone as a way to train yourself to overcome the stigma of going against a mainstream ideology. It may help you develop a spinal fortitude to stop believing in and obeying the rules of capitalism. You may stop paying taxes or debts, and you can go off the grid. But any of these actions will result in repercussions that will cost you money, or land you an experience with the (very expensive) criminal justice system, unless you have a network of others supporting you, strategizing with you, and leveraging your personal actions into a meaningful political collective social intervention. The free market economy teaches you (and your family unit, if you have one) that you are the only thing you have, and the only thing that matters. It is only by overturning that idea in practice that you can really begin to restructure yourself and the economy. But there is almost nothing harder than coming up against the wall: financial capital and all of its laws, social cues, and morals. This coming up against the wall—alone, which keeps us from care, from home, and from each other—is making us sick.
My revenge fantasy goes like this: someone calls you, and they ask you if you want to be a part of The Hologram, the codename for a huge phone-tree shaped network of women, gender non-conforming and trans people, and femmes who are in touch, all the time. The shape of the phone tree is actually more like a rhizome, if you could see the conversation network from above. Its path is decentralized and untraceable, undercover in broad daylight, because it looks like we’re just on the phone, writing letters, sending postcards, Skyping, Google hanging, Facebooking, emailing, FaceTiming. You know, “women’s work.”
We are asking each other questions about what hurts and where, and taking notes. What are we doing? We are interviewing each other about the conditions of our health, our lives, what it’s like to be us. We don’t know why we are compelled towards these long and unwieldy conversations, but we can’t stop learning about what the others’ lives are like. It keeps us alive; it feels like a secret portal to the centre of the earth, and back to ourselves. We are asking about the relationships, the mental health histories, the workplace violences, the plants, the nail polish, the family dramas, the addictions, the anxiety, the type of peanut butter, and the political aspirations. We are taking notes and we are putting it into encrypted folders. We are following up and asking more questions.
We are Googling radical doctors with lower fees and finding out if a friend really needs the surgery. It feels like the most important work we’ve ever done, and it is completely invisible—we are here sitting on the couch and no one knows what we are doing unless they are doing it too. For new people, it is difficult and a bit frustrating to understand the degree to which there are no goals besides finding connections, trust, and solidarity. The point is that there is a very complex weaving of friendship and collective responsibility, a net that you can’t see but you can feel, and it feels strong.
Some people quit their jobs. Not because this is a paid gig, but because when we hear what is happening to those who we’ve grown to love just across the border, or across some pond, or across a racial divide, we are going to go there and be with them. In this network of phone calls and texts and viral conversations, we see that our problems are connected in varying degrees. And we look back and remember when we thought it was all our fault, that everything was in our head. But it wasn’t, and it’s not. We account for one another, we hold each other to account, and we hold each other, period.
To learn more about this plan, go to feministeconomicsdepartment.com/hologram