Governing Under the Influence

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the Common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the Common from the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things that we do not own,
But leaves the Lords and Ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the Common,
And geese will still a Common lack
‘Til they go and steal it back.
~ English folk poem, circa 1764

I never heard that the Creator opened an estate office to issue title deeds to land…. Every proprietor of land owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds.
~ Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice

Those are quoted from “The Rule of Property,” a pamphlet by Karen Coulter (in relation to the second quote, check out the proposal of a citizen’s dividend). I picked up a copy from a symposium I just got back from, although the text can be found online as well.

The symposium was Governing Under the Influence. It was held at the local Iowa City Public Library and organized by the Des Moines chapter of the AFSC and East Central Iowa Move To Amend, Iowa City Climate Advocates and Johnson County Greens.

As you can see, it was a decent selection of progressive and leftist politics, although nothing too radical, at least by my standards. Nothing was presented that would likely have been offensive to the average liberal. Still, the presenters were radical enough to challenge the status quo from different perspectives.

The first presentation I went to was “The School to Prison Pipeline.” It was given by Diana Henry, a local teacher who has lived in the area for at least a couple of decades. I noticed that she was the only black person in the room, among mostly older whites. I hadn’t considered beforehand what would be the makeup of the crowd, but I suppose it was unsurprising for an event like this around here.

I left the symposium to go back home for a short while. On my walk outside, I passed by various minorities. It’s a mostly white town, but minorities aren’t an insignificant demographic, as it is a diverse college town. It made me wonder about what kind of disconnect this signified. This symposium seemed to be at least as relevant for minorities as it was for whites. Then again, even most white people in this white majority town probably didn’t know about the event. Why should minorites be any different?

After returning, I next went to Professor Benjamin Hunnicutt’s talk, “Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream.” He is an expert in leisure studies and has written some books about the topic. I wasn’t initially excited by the title in the symposium schedule, but I went because my friend wanted to hear it. It turned out to be quite fascinating.

Hunnicutt offered a bunch of awesome quotes, from more recent to all the way back to the 1700s. He explained that he had been surprised by how far back his inquiry led him. One choice quote he offered was from John Adams, one of the least radical of the American founders:

“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

Now, that is economic and social mobility. Adams hoped that a couple of generations following him Americans would have the opportunity to live a life dedicated to leisure, education, and personal betterment. What happened to that American Dream?

Hunnicutt explained how our contemporary idealizing of work is rather new. What so many Americans strove for, from early America to the early 20th century, was a world of increasing free time, as an expression of individual freedom in a free society.

Freedom from labor inspired a wide variety of Americans, who envisioned a future when people worked very little. In fact, this future was becoming a reality, as hours worked decreased over most of American history, until the mid-20th century when work became the symbol of prosperity and of the American Dream. That is how we got to this point of fully equating not working with laziness and worthlessness.

Hunnicutt didn’t mention it, but I’m willing to bet that slavery and its abolition played a major role in shifting attitudes. For early Americans, labor was closely linked to slavery. To not work meant living the good life. Some of the founders envisioned a country ruled by an enlightened aristocracy, which meant those who could dedicate their lives to the public good because of independent wealth freed them from having to work, although Benjamin Franklin (the least aristocratic among them) was the only one to ever live this dream (the rest were either poor like Paine or in debt like Jefferson).

Slavery was abolished around the time industrialization went into full force. Reconstruction led to Populism, which led to Progressivism, which led to the New Deal. FDR re-envisioned work as a right and that implied work as an obligation, a civic duty even. Mass unemployment during the Great Depression was seen as a problem, rather than an opportunity for a new society of greater freedom. So, work programs were created. Ever since, politicians use employment rates as an indicator of the health of the economy and of the society as a whole. The number of hours worked on average has increased (even as money earned hasn’t increased), hence reversing a centuries old trend.

Why doesn’t this bother more Americans? Or rather, why are so few Americans even aware of this reality and the history behind it?

I’ve complained that these days even many American left-wingers can’t imagine a world without work. After all, without labor, how can their be labor organizing? Our entire lives are labor. What else do we have to organize around? That is a lack of imagination.

The concluding talk was by George Friday. She was supposed to discuss “Black Lives Matter,” but it was more informal and general. She wasn’t physically present. So, we listened to her disembodied voice calling in from her home in North Carolina. She mostly took questions.

One question in particular connected to my thinking. A white lady made an inquiry related to her professional experience in mental health and youth. She wanted to know how organizations, such as the one she works for, could reach out to the black community.

Friday gave some good advice, although mostly common sense. The main gist was to first develop connections of familiarity, trust, and respect. Then and only then seek more specific ways of helping and contributing. Basically, treat other people like humans who you care about knowing and relating to, not simply as problems to be solved.

However, what interested me was Friday’s assumption about who she was speaking to. She couldn’t see the crowd listening to her. All she knew was that we were in Iowa. As such, she assumed we were a bunch of privileged white people, which is basically what she told us. Well, she was right, more or less.

What occurred to me was this. Did anyone who organized the symposium reach out to minorities in the community in order to get more of them to attend? Instead of just white people, it might have been nice if there had been other blacks there besides the one presenter, Diane Henry. After all, one in sixty people in this town identify as non-white or mixed. I’m willing to bet a black living in this town, especially one who isn’t middle class, would have asked different kinds of questions.

It wasn’t just minorities who were underrepresented. There also weren’t many young people there or what I would perceive as poor people. Certainly, none of the homeless people I regularly see down the block were in attendance. The speakers and the audience were almost entirely older whites who were probably middle class professionals or retired professionals.

The lack of  young people was most noticeable. This is a small college town with a disproportionate number of young people, although many of them have left for the summer, which might lead one to ask why was the event scheduled after the students left town. It was strange to see so many people of retirement age in a town where half the population is under 25 years old.

This last line of thought brought me back to the issue of leisure. Economically well off people have the most leisure. In the US, older middle class white people represent the largest sector of the population that is economically well off. These are the people who, if working, don’t have to hold down multiple jobs (and, if they have children, can afford someone to watch their children) or, if retired, can afford to live off the pensions, savings, and investments from having had a stable well-paying professional career.

Free time isn’t just about leisure in the narrow sense. This symposium was about the serious work of democratic organizing and action in a free society. It takes a lot of work, mostly voluntary, to make a democracy function. Free time is the foundation of a free society and the expression of freedom in general.

Freedom to spend time as one wishes relates to many other freedoms. It is to be free from want, fear, and stress. To have the time is one aspect of having resources and opportunities. So much of the work we do is to get those resources and opportunities. This means the only way to create greater freedom is by offering greater access for all people to the lifestyle that at present is mostly limited to older middle(-to-upper) class whites.

Hunnicutt explains, in Why Do Republicans Want Us to Work All the Time?, that,

“Then real progress would begin. Humane and moral progress. Instead of perpetual consumerism and the infinite increase in material wealth, we would naturally turn to improving the human condition, learning how to live together “wisely, agreeable, and well,” as Keynes put it. Progress would then take the form of healthier families, communities and cities—the increase of knowledge, the enjoyment of nature, history and other peoples, an increasing delight in the marvels of the human spirit, the practice of our beliefs and values together, the finding of common ground for conviviality, expanding our awareness of God, wondering in Creation.”

There is one thing he doesn’t consider.

Maybe poverty, both of wealth and of time, is intentional, rather than an accidental side effect. There are few greater forms of social control than fear of destitution, the threat of hunger and homelessness. If people are so busy just trying to get by, constantly hustling, whether on the legal or black markets, they will never have the time to imagine a better life and a better society and they will never have the time to act, individually and with others, on such aspirations.

Is a poor person living in desperation actually free in any practical sense? In the US, this is an inevitably racialized question, but more importantly it is a class question involving all Americans of all races. Are we to treat freedom as a fundamental right or a mere luxury for the privileged few?

Freedom is meaningless as an abstraction. Either it is a tangible reality or, if held out like a carrot on a stick, a cruel joke.