Commodity or Community?

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This pivotal economic crisis in 21st century finance capital now underway is so fundamentally different from others we have lived through that it will be years before we know its full impact on American life. After all, when GM looks like its going under, housing stock has lost 30% of its value in 18 of the 20 largest American cities, Lehman Bros. goes the way of the Edsel, every American with a pension is losing sleep over declining net worth, and the American public is asked to bailout JP Morgan Chase and a few other dozen banks, you know it sure isn’t the same 'ole-same'ole. When you add in that we’re trying to figure out what the hell $62,000,000,000, 000 credit swaps could mean when our national GDP is only a measly $16,000,000,000, 000, you begin to see why people these days tremble now and again.

So, yeah, it’s a mess, bigger than your usual, every-fifth year fiscal crisis, a close cousin to the Great Depression, minus only the catchy name. I don’t have anywhere near the economic smarts to know how it’s going to shake out, but I do know it’s also connected to the politics of how people act on their own behalf and, secondarily, for those with whom they relate as having similar interests. As someone steeped in community organizing, both in practice and reading a few hundred histories over the years, some of how our society ends up depends on how people shape their own answers to meet those needs.

The last 30 years of neo-liberal thought have done more than foster a conservative agenda around free markets, anti-government intervention, and individual rights. They have put a brake on community organizing because people, left with a choice on mobilizing with others to get their needs met and getting them met all on their own, chose the latter option. Of course, that people’s real income remained pretty flat for the vast majority of Americans during this same period leads to an obvious question: how’d they provide for themselves individually? If their needs remained the same or grew greater while their buying power didn’t grow much, what led them to focus on individualized spending solutions to collective, public needs? Why was the answer to buy their own car and not demand a better bus?

Today’s fifth-graders know the answer: credit. Credit gives us money in the pocket, baubles on the arm, and a noose around our neck. As we have learned in late 2008, that the average American has 40% more yearly debt than yearly earnings is a piper who now must be paid to the tune of massive foreclosures, lay-offs across America, and banks afraid to lend to even each other. It would seem that private answers for most folks might not make so much sense any more.

But wait a minute. If there are “public” solutions, then that means the answers come from people identifying together as a community… people see we can be helped by joint effort. The common good of people means “common connection” as well, and those 30 years have not been kind to such connections. For with easy credit came fast marketing…the marketing of luxury goods to the masses so that individuals could feel like the rich, even if they couldn’t be them. As business writers as diverse as Michael Silverstein and James Twitchell have argued, “middle class” people get to identify with the rich because they splurge on high-end Calvin Klein underwear or cashmere socks or that bauble on the wrist. In turn, they buy a story of both easy consumption and connection to wealth that is as illusory as the real cash in their wallets.

The resulting focus on individualism, private consumption, and conservative disinterest in collective solutions made sense as long as the credit kept flowing and growing. Ouch! I’m paying 28% interest from Capital One andI am maxed out on my card! Don’t bother me with that flyer about public transportation or better schools, I’m so stressed I need a massage…here, use my Citicard Visa! Personalized solutions, quick fixes of luxurious moments and commodities , disinterest in our neighbor, unrelieved stress…it was a long and seemingly prosperous cycle that’s come to an end…for most of us.

Forming a sense of community rather than commodity will take practice. It will require not just common pursuits but a reconstruction of identity that ties a significant part of one’s self-worth to that person next door, not the credit-lender downtown. As we begin new forms of community organizing soon, can we make these connections?

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on November 4, 2008 10:44 AM.

White Dread was the previous entry in this blog.

The Inauguration of ‘Our America’ Has Only Begun is the next entry in this blog.

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