I can’t help but feel that the following is an unfinished story – a seed hidden by the affluence of the past few decades. Now, as the conventional economic institutions of our society are becoming increasingly ineffective, I expect the lessons in this story to be shared more widely by the surprisingly large number of people who have been through personal journeys like this. Michael lives on Washington’s Whidbey Island.
EACH OF US has his or her own, often unconscious biases that influence our relationship to money and economic exchange. I can pinpoint the moment I acquired one of my strongest biases. I was ten years old and my parents had just bought me the Rolls Royce of bicycles, a very fancy chrome-fendered bike with a horn and headlamp. No one in my neighborhood had one as nice. It was a community of unskilled blue-collar factory workers, and our family was an economic step above most of our neighbors just because my father was a skilled tradesman.
On this particular occasion I rode my new bicycle to a swimming pool along with some friends. When we came out after swimming I discovered that my bicycle had been bashed and stomped and made to look as sorry as the worst bikes in the lot. At first I was heart- broken but after a few days I began to view this vandalism as a good thing, because there was no longer any danger of my being viewed with envy as I rode my beat-up new bicycle around the neighborhood.
Ever since, I’ve preferred friendly exchange over competitive winner-loser situations. I’ve wanted my actions to inspire admiration at best, indifference at worst, and to avoid envy. So I own second-hand, cast- off, or recycled goods, and nothing that I might be tempted to prize too dearly. I shun luxuries and tend to value experience and knowledge over material acquisition.
No doubt this helps explain how I could spend six years in college taking mostly courses that were deeply engrossing, but not very practical if career preparation happened to be your interest. After college I spent years traveling or working temporary manual laborer jobs, when not putting myself into some idealistic project or other, ranging from working to end the Vietnam War, to aiding Native Americans in prison, to preserving low-income housing for the poor.
With a growing philosophical distaste for competitive exchange, my curiosity was piqued by accounts of places where friendly economic exchange was supposedly the practice. My first opportunity to visit such a place was some 15 years ago, when I was able to spend a term of my junior year in college studying at a university in the Soviet Union.
First-hand exposure to the Soviet Union did provide me with some new and very useful insights. Food, clothing, shelter, health care, productive labor, entertainment, and the acquisition of arts or knowledge were more equitably distributed than in the West. Jobs were low-paid, but always available. Housing was somewhat crowded, but no one lived on the streets. Food, shelter, public transportation and entertainment and the arts were inexpensive and more accessible to everyone than in the west. Street crime was virtually nonexistent.
On the negative side though, was a tragic lack of freedom, so clearly evident. A very few individuals, with basically a very conservative and rigid belief system, dictated the terms of existence for all. It was a nation of people starved for reliable information about the rest of the world, and a land where the imagination and curiosity of artists, scientists, and philosophers were narrowly confined and regimented. The average man on the street may have felt more secure materially than ever before, but a free spirit or thinker was very liable to meet with martyrdom at the hands of the government.
When I returned to America though, I was hardly inclined to jump for joy. My hometown, Detroit, had been the scene of one of the worst race and poverty riots in American history. The Vietnam War had badly tarnished our image abroad, and further eroded any belief I might have had left in America as the protector of the weak and oppressed.
It has been suggested that the East has sacrificed freedom for security and the West security for freedom. This is at least partially true, but the question still remains – are freedom and security mutually exclusive? My own suspicion is that the two can be reconciled, but only in settings where faith and trust outweigh fear and suspicion. My own subsequent experiences are a good case in point.
Being young and full of energy and idealism, I readily joined the Vietnam era movements for peace and justice. When impatience, anger, and frustration at the lack of progress got the best of me, I became part of a much more negative, destructive movement "to bring the war home" to those who were responsible for waging the war in Asia. During my earlier more pacifistic phase I was willing to simply disengage myself as much as possible from our warring society. Non-cooperation with the military draft, no more barbers, lots of beans, brown rice, oatmeal, and salvation army clothes, and peaceful protest typified my approach.
During the latter part of the war I was still not very keen on material possessions, but I had adopted a much more predatory attitude toward the goods in the American market place. My friends and I would wear large baggy coats with extra pockets into hardware and grocery stores in order to steal goods we regarded as necessary to carry on our cause. This phase ushered in a time of increased callousness and cynicism. The decision to engage in violence and to prey on the bodies and possessions of our perceived enemies, ostensibly to aid the poor and oppressed, soon led to a blurring of moral distinctions in our lives.
Stolen goods, which at first consisted of food for the table or printing supplies for the cause, soon began to include records (a revolutionary needs to relax, too) and expensive clothes (you never know when you’ll need to go somewhere incognito). Power struggles erupted among individuals and groups with little, if any, real differences, but resulted in violent and destructive acts equaling those aimed at war-related industries or military recruiters. The euphoria that followed our earlier acts of lawlessness was soon replaced by the sobering effects of the harsh treatment in jails, and the calculating and suspicious mind-set many of us began to adopt as we grew more "street-wise".
The majority of my friends and I were more than happy to part ways with the power hungry, pro-violent revolution, Stalinists, Maoists, Leninists, and those of a similar ilk, when the long, ugly war in Asia finally began to wind down. Few of us would ever be enticed by the old American dream, but many of us were long overdue for the healing power of more positive, life-affirming friendly exchanges such as having a love affair, gardening, having children, or nurturing a cooperative venture.
At that time 3 friends and I worked for several months in a car factory in order to save enough money to open a collectively-run bakery. We sold nutritious, low-cost baked goods to non-profit food co-ops. We paid ourselves a very low wage. We chose to live frugally in communal households at the time. Our main priority in life was exploration of ways to equitably distribute income, responsibility, and authority in our collective lives. My main impression from those days is that, at those times when we put maximum trust in one another, we were rewarded with generosity and joy, but whenever we, individually, or in a group, lost trust or confidence in each other, we would receive the very evidence we feared, that our friends could be unkind and miserly.
Love affairs are excellent "schools" for learning the nature of friendly exchange. A competitive love relationship is inconceivable. Love requires vulnerability to thrive, and therefore relies on a high degree of trust. Fear and suspicion of one’s lover is always an indication that something is not right between you. Friendly exchange will work if our level of belief and trust in each other is strong and based upon a real willingness to express doubts and fears and carefully weigh our decision to participate. I’ve seen remarkable acts of group awareness and trust. It is not simply theoretically possible for us to live without being exploitive or predatory. It happens all the time.
I’ve been a member of several communal households, and at least two cooperative work places where the communistic idea, "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need", was practiced successfully. We would each determine how much work we would contribute and ask for a portion of the group’s resources based on our perception of what was in the best interest of both the group and ourselves. Many of us practice this system successfully in our daily lives in relation to our immediate loved ones.
Five of us successfully practiced this system as the staff of the Cascade Community Center in Seattle for several years. No system of exchange is without problems. For certain people and certain times in our lives competitive or boss and worker type situations are desirable. For others though, with a willingness to be open and positive as they learn from the inevitable mistakes we all make, friendly exchange is an exciting alternative, either as a life-long goal or short-lived project.
Ironically, governments which have attempted to force this ideal upon their people have failed miserably. The leadership of the "communist world" has imposed many of the forms of generosity and concern for one’s neighbor on their people, only to have utterly destroyed the spirit of the act, and generally they have evoked the very opposite of their intent in their subject peoples. We in the West, of course, have our own problems remaining free of manipulation and exploitation. In our part of the world there is a mass-media fueled mania for consumer junk, and a growing trend for big business and big government to dominate the individual.
Friendly exchange is a worthy ideal for a society. My suspicion, though, is that qualitative changes in a society generally proceed best from small independent groups at the bottom rather than manipulation from the top. Individual communities and small groups can best explore friendly forms of exchange. And so long as we are free to believe what we will, we are able to practice our beliefs, and what we choose to believe is the only real limit to what we can be.