The Big Picture

webOne of the things that has been helpful to me in thinking about my own dilemmas of honest living is to realize that there is a context to the way I feel.  I don’t just feel confused and frustrated based on feelings that are only coming from inside me – my feelings are related to and influenced by the bigger picture going on around me.  Even though the current context is pretty bleak, it makes me feel better to think that there are larger patterns going on that have an effect on these issues – if my own dilemmas feel out of my control that’s because they actually at least partly are! If we get to know the terrain around us more thoroughly, it will help us to better negotiate our decisions, because we’ll better know what kind of ground we’re walking on.

Here I want to write a bit about what I’ve been thinking about the “bigger picture” that influences our “honest living” questions.

For now I’m thinking of several things that create the current context:

  1. Neoliberal Capitalism, in terms of Economics (if that sounds intimidating, don’t worry, read on for more info)
  2. Neoliberal Thought Patterns
  3. Race, Class & Gender Inequalities
  4. Non-Profit Industrial Complex
  5. These questions are not new – they even plagued Emma Goldman!

Read on to find out more!

Check out a really interesting comics series on neoliberalism.

Check out a really interesting comics series on neoliberalism.

1. Neoliberalism is a major part of the context of the times we are living in.  Neoliberalism is a fancy word that describes a really pro-business, consumer-based capitalist economy, which a lot of people agree has been in play in the US since the 1970s. It comes form “neo” as in “new” and “liberal” meaning “free” or “without regulation.”  Its about not putting any regulation on business, money and capital, and having a supposedly “free” market – which means corporations can do whatever they want, but people have very limited choices or power to make change.  Privatization (handing over public resources to private companies), and putting profits over community needs are also important parts of it.  Betita Martinez and Arnoldo Garcia have a really good short article that lays it out.

This got me thinking about my own experience.  The neoliberal form of capitalism really only started in the mid-1970s.  I was born in 1979, so I have lived my whole life under this system!

What neoliberalism means for our lives and our decisions about jobs is that times really are tougher for most people in the US and indeed in the world.  I had a sociology professor tell me once that my generation (born in 1979) is the first generation of  Americans who cannot statistically and on average expect to have a better standard of living then our parents.  So it really is harder to find jobs and make ends meet.  Services we need are more expensive because they are owned by private corporations.  I’m saying all this not to depress you, but to remind you that if trying to eke out an honest living feels tough – its because it is!  And you are not alone, lots of folks are struggling.

bootstraps2. Neoliberal Thought Patterns

One of the ways that neoliberalism plays out is in the messages we get, and how those messages shape how we think – in other words, its not just about economics, its also about a way of looking at the world.  Neoliberalism is like the “bootstraps” idea on steroids.  A lot of neoliberal thinking is not totally new – its part of the original capitalist thinking that our country was founded on.  But a lot of folks are saying that there is something more global, and more intense going on.

Based on some of what I’ve been reading, here’s some pieces of neoliberal thinking:

• individual people are the basic unit of society, instead of families or communities
• these individual people are primarily seen as consumers, and we have rights not because we are human beings on this earth, or members of a community, but because we spend money and participate in the market
• People who are not consumers, or are believed not to be consumers, are seen as not being able to participate, as not having rights
• The assumption is that we are all equal participants equally making choices and participating in the market – which completely ignores the ways that race, class and gender determine our options
• Each one of us is totally, privately responsible for her/himself – if you need some help, you must somehow be lazy or not have worked hard enough

One author says: “choices are always made within the context of larger institutional structures, ideological messages, and fiscal limits” in other words, ideas of choice are not outside of dynamics of power like racism, sexism and classism, how much money we have, or how we think. (Craven, Christa.  “A Consumer’s Right to Choose a Midwife: Shifting Meanings for reproductive Rights under Neoliberalism.”  American Anthropologist. Vol. 109, Issue 4. pp. 701-712.)

So what does this mean for those of us struggling with “honest living questions”?  I’ve been catching myself thinking about my own questions about vocation in a lot of these ways – I sometimes think of myself as one individual who has to figure it out all alone, and who is acting as a consumer in some sense, choosing the product of a job, or even a life.  The market mentality makes me feel like I should have any choice I want – that’s the message we get that if we are all equal consumers, we should all be able to choose anything.  Then I feel like I’ve failed if its not all working out easily.  So I’m trying to break out of that way of thinking – to challenge myself to think about making my decisions in the context of supportive communities, to stop assuming that I have any choice I want and that if things feel tough its my own fault.

incomeinequality3. Race, Gender & Class Inequalities

A lot of people who think and talk about neoliberalism tend to really focus on economics and class on a large scale, but don’t really deal with how identity categories like race, class and gender connect with it.  I read one article by a woman named Lisa Duggan, that argues that inequalities of race, class and gender are very important in structuring how neoliberalism plays out.  She says:

“class and racial hierarchies, gender and sexual institutions, and religious and ethnic boundaries are the channels through which money, political power, cultural resources, and social organization flow”

In other words, we can’t talk about neoliberalism and economics without talking about race, class and gender.

A couple examples of this:

Race: Several folks from United for a Fair Economy recently wrote a book called The Color of Wealth.  They have a really good website about race-based class inequalities.
Gender: Women still make less in the same jobs than men do in the US.
Class: we have growing class inequality  in the US, not to mention globally.  People with middle class or wealthy parents have a much easier time staying in that wealth range, and its much harder to gain more stability without that leg up.  A website called takes a look at that.

I think what’s important about this is understanding that each of our personal experiences about struggling with “honest living” questions are partly influenced by our own experiences of race, class and gender, and where we fall in these hierarchies.

This is not to say that anyone’s honest living choices are easy – even for white, class privileged men, it can still be economically hard since times are getting tougher for everyone, and you still may have lots of internal turmoil because you’ve absorbed a lot of the same messages that make it hard to figure this stuff out as well.  (Parker Palmer talks about honest living issues from the perspective of a white man in some interesting ways.  See more on the resources page.)

One of the big things I’m interested in learning through this project, by hearing from folks on this blog and through interviews, is particularly how these dynamics influence who has what kinds of questions.  If you’ve had more choice and economic access based on privilege, does that make you feel torn up about what to do?  Or if you have had very little access to employment choice, does that make it really frustrating, or in a strange way cut down on angst?  Clearly these are not easy answers, its more than a simple “yes” or “no.”

revnotfunded4. Non-Profit Industrial Complex

We are living in an age where social movements are not as strong, connected and visible as they were in the 1960s and 1970s.  This probably increases our sense of isolation around questions of honest living, because we have less access to social change community and movements that would help guide our choices.  Also, non-profits have become much more professionalized.  A lot of folks involved in radical social movements are trying to think about what impact it has that so much social movement work is now happening inside government regulated, professionalized organizations.

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex Edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence lays out a lot of the issues and critiques with the non-profit mode of social change activism.  Ultimately they aren’t simply saying “do away with foundations and non-profits” but they are asking that we be thoughtful and intentional about how we think about non-profits.  Check out a review of the book here.

Sometimes I think many of us tend to hold up jobs at grassroots non-profits as “the way out.” Like if we can just get a job doing social change, that will guarantee that we are doing good, making a difference, and (maybe) are able to pay the bills.  I think the critiques raised in this book make that more complicated – there is no easy way out, or no way to be completely outside of oppression and power dynamics – even in non-profits.  While at face value this may seem depressing, to me it feels like a relief.  Looking at it this way means we can let ourselves off the hook, and stop pursuing the unreachable dream of finding some perfect, non-oppressive situation that puts us outside all the problems and issues.  If the dream of constructing a life outside of negative power dynamics feels unreachable – that’s because it is!  So instead, we can get busy trying to construct a life that works for us and makes a broader difference.

emmagoldman5. These questions aren’t new – they even plagued Emma Goldman!

Even though questions of “honest living” have a very particular current context of neoliberalism, race, class and gender inequalities, and the rise of the non-profit industrial complex, it turns out they are not actually only from our current age.  Even anarchists like Emma Goldman struggled with these issues, and people wrote in to anarchist magazines debating and critiquing the ways other anarchists made money.  On the one hand thinking about this can make me feel bummed out, like how will I ever figure it out for myself if famous folks from way back then couldn’t.  But on the other hand it makes me feel more hopeful – like its not just in my own head, these are not new issues and folks have struggled with them throughout the ages.

I couldn’t figure out how to upload the pdf of the article — but e-mail me at if you want me to e-mail you the pdf.

The author says that even among the debates, the folks writing in to these magazines “agreed on one point: an anarchist could not live a consistent life in America” (507).  Again, this is a place we can let ourselves off the hook: if our goal has been to try to live a life without contradictions, we can let that go and stop being hard on ourselves about it.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve made it through reading to this point — congratulations and thanks for reading!  There are probably many other pieces of context we could explore, and if you have ideas please post a comment or e-mail  Do you have other ideas about the context that surrounds us, and is actually a part of us?  How have you felt these pieces influencing your own life?


One response to “The Big Picture

  1. thank you for breaking this down and having great references as well. this too is something i often think about because as a social worker, “the big picture” is our middle name. all of life and its decisions begin with perspective, which comes from macro, mezzo, and micro level interactions. we are shaped by our society, our culture, and it is very true that we live in a neoliberal country. i could go on forever but so many theories in social work discuss different methods of interaction with clients and communities based upon viewing our world this way. one personal belief is that making a change in this world begins with oneself. inner healing, inner peace, finding God. ‘to each his own’ in this idea of making a difference in this world….

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