Thursday, August 2, 2007
One of the greatest challenges in my adult life-as an artist,
activist, and son of southern Appalachia- has been the experience of
growing into the life of a rural farming village in the foothills of
the Bolivian Andes and the ways in which I've had to radically rethink
the very notion of "poverty". From UN reports to leftist journalism,
Bolivia is almost always described as "a dirt poor, landlocked,
primarily indigenous country in South America". Yet when I walk down
to my friend don Ramiro's house to pick up my son Camilo, after a day
of playing with his nine kids, I oftentimes literally feel giddy due
to the abundance and sense of generosity surrounding me. Any
well-intentioned development specialist would look out upon our
village and think, "How can we elevate these poor people out of their
stagnant and regressive lives?". I've learned to ask (myself first and
now others),'What Western myths need to be debunked to affirm the
dignified life here[in Totorkawa]?" Interrogating the confused Western
notion of "poverty", the lynchpin of the whole Western development
discourse, lies before me as a central task in the collective struggle
to recuperate human dignity.
Every day I interact with people here in East Tennessee who lead an
extremely impoverished existence, yet are swimming in goods, services,
modern amenities, and technological trinkets of all sorts. It could
be more precisely, responsibly, defined as "scarcity" although the
application of this term seems misplaced at first. When walking down
any one aisle at a typical grocery store in the United States,
"scarcity" may be the last word that comes to mind. One's thinking
gets jarred when striving to illuminate and understand all of the
subtle aspects residing within the blanket term "poverty". In the
chapter titled "Production" , in The Development Dictionary (Zed
Books, 1992), Jean Robert offers this insight into the violence and
degradation residing within these subtleties :
"Perhaps the modern economy is essentially a way of organizing reality
in a way that actually transforms both people and nature into waste.
For modern production to function, the economy must first establish a
system in which people become dependent upon goods and services
produced for them; and to do this, it must devalue historically
determined patterns of subsisting and corrupt cultural webs of
meaning. The mass production of modern goods, services and images
demands cultural blight through the spread of disvalue, that is, the
systematic devaluation of the goods found in traditional cultures.
Disvalue, to the extent that the economy is productive, entails a
degradation which touches everything and everyone affected by or
involved with this modern mode of organizing reality. A person is less
a person, the more he or she is immersed in the economy. And less a
friend. Less a participant in leisure- that is, in culture. The air is
less pure, the wild places fewer, the soil less rich, the water less
Many would beg to differ with this viewpoint, that one's humanity is
eroded the more they become involved in the economy. As a matter of
fact, many would say that "the poor" will only be freed by lifting
them up out of their villages and placing them into the labor force.
Ask a Chinese miner, an unemployed Nigerian tapping oil pipelines
under the cover of night, or a southern Appalachian miner's son
clocking in for his shift as guard -"over-seeing" primarily
African-American and Latino men- at the new Supermax prison about the
"freedom" and "dignity" they've found in the global economy. Wolfgang
Sachs' (along with others such as Ashis Nandy and Ivan Illich)
disentangling of notions of scarcity, destitution, and frugality from
the blanket term of "poverty" can greatly assist in the recuperation
of our critical faculties inside of imperial strongholds. Below is a
segment from Sachs' writings that is helpful in getting out from
underneath the suffocating blanket term of "poverty". It is a grave
injustice to define a whole people, a whole country, as "dirt poor".
It is an imposition and a violent assumption that wounds everyone
involved. It behooves us, especially Westerners suffering through an
accelerated process of social and cultural degeneration (inextricably
linked to our widespread ecological degradation), to hold this notion
up to the light.
(August the 2nd, 2007- southern Appalachia)
"Poverty" - In Need Of A Few Distinctions
You can't measure wealth by cash alone
by Wolfgang Sachs
One of the articles in Exploring Our Interconnectedness (IC#34)
Winter 1993, Page 6
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute
Many in the West misjudge our planet's diverse peoples by comparing
them with northern European and North American cultures. The following
excerpt from the October-December 1992 issue of Edges, published by
the Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs, points to the
often-overlooked quality of life in communities that have kept their
distance from the commodity economy.
I could have kicked myself afterwards. Yet my remark had seemed the
most natural thing on Earth at the time. It was six months after
Mexico City's catastrophic earthquake in 1985 and I had spent the
whole day walking around Tepito , a dilapidated quarter inhabited by
ordinary people but threatened by land speculators. I had expected
ruins and resignation, decay and squalor, but the visit had made me
think again: there was a proud neighborly spirit, vigorous building
activity, and a flourishing shadow economy. [For more on Tepito , see
But at the end of the day the remark slipped out: "It's all very well
but, when it comes down to it, these people are still terribly poor."
Promptly, one of my companions stiffened: " No somos pobres, somos
Tepitanos! " (We are not poor people, we are Tepitans ).
What a reprimand! I had to admit to myself in embarrassment that,
quite involuntarily, the cliches of development philosophy had
triggered my reaction.
"Poverty" on a global scale was discovered after World War II.
Whenever "poverty" was mentioned at all in the documents of the 1940s
and 1950s, it took the form of a measurement of per-capita income
whose significance rested on the fact that it lay ridiculously far
below the US standard.
Once the scale of incomes had been established, such different worlds
as those of the Zapotec people of Mexico, the Tuareg of North Africa,
and the Rajasthani of India could be classed together; a comparison to
the "rich" nations demanded relegating them to a position of almost
immeasurable inferiority. In this way, "poverty" was used to define
whole peoples, not according to what they are and want to be, but
according to what they lack.
This approach provided a justification for intervention; wherever low
income is the problem the only answer would be "economic development."
There was no mention of the idea that poverty might also result from
oppression and thus demand liberation. Or that a culture of
sufficiency might be essential for long-term survival. Or even less
that a culture might direct its energies toward spheres other than
Binary divisions, such as healthy/ill, normal/abnormal, or, more
pertinently, rich/poor, are like steamrollers of the mind; they level
a multiform world, flattening out that which does not fit. That
approach also fails to distinguish between frugality, destitution, and
Frugality is a mark of cultures free from the frenzy of accumulation.
In these cultures, the necessities of everyday life are mostly gained
through subsistence production. To our eyes, these people have rather
meager possessions - maybe a hut and some pots and a special Sunday
outfit - with money playing only a marginal role.
Instead of cash wealth, everyone usually has access to fields, rivers,
and woods, while kinship and community duties guarantee services that
elsewhere must be paid for in hard cash. Nobody goes hungry.
In a traditional Mexican village, for example, the private
accumulation of wealth results in social ostracism - prestige is
gained precisely by spending even small profits on good deeds for the
community. Such a lifestyle only turns into demeaning "poverty" when
under the pressure of an "accumulating" society.
Destitution, on the other hand, becomes rampant as soon as frugality
is deprived of its foundation - community ties, land, forest, and
Scarcity derives from modernized poverty. It affects mostly urban
groups caught up in the money economy as workers and consumers whose
spending power is so low that they fall by the wayside. Their capacity
to achieve through their own efforts gradually fades, while at the
same time their desires, fueled by glimpses of high society, spiral
toward infinity. This scissor-like effect of want is what
characterizes modern poverty.
Until now, development politicians have viewed "poverty" as the
problem and "growth" as the solution. They have not yet admitted that
they have been largely working with a concept of poverty fashioned by
the experience of commodity-based need in the North. With the less
well-off Homo Economicus in mind, they have encouraged growth and
often produced destitution by bringing multifarious cultures of
frugality to ruin. The culture of growth can only be erected on the
ruins of frugality, and so destitution and dependence on commodities
are its price.
In societies that are not built on the compulsion to amass material
wealth, economic activity is not geared to slick zippy output. Rather,
economic activities - like choosing an occupation, cultivating the
land, or exchanging goods - are understood as ways of enacting that
particular social drama in which members of a community see themselves
as the actors. The economy is closely bound up with life, but it does
not stamp its rule and rhythms on the rest of society. Only in the
West does the economy dictate the drama and everyone's role in it.
It seems my friend from Tepito knew of this when he refused to be
labeled "poor." His honor was at stake; his pride too. He clung to his
Tepito form of sufficiency, perhaps sensing that without it there
loomed only destitution or never-ending scarcity. "
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
REFLECTIONS ON RACISM(mid July, 2007)
There, unfortunately, exists very little interest in understanding the dominant vision of “progress” and “development”- the ways they are driving all of our increasing problems, especially in regards to racism- nor is there much desire or willingness to explore solutions to our social ills that may arise out of our immediate, local contexts, especially when all of our leaders/authorities are conditioned to seek the answers solely in “Western” thought structures. So the constructed beliefs and myths continue in a very effective manner, like the belief that the spirituality of the indigenous peoples was “assimilated” into Christianity, when in fact, from the very beginning, there was a natural inclination among the indigenous towards respect and recognition of the “Other”, as opposed to tolerance and assimilation.
(translated by Jack Herranen)
Thursday, July 12, 2007
This essay was begun in the days following the deadly conflicts in the city of Cochabamba, between campesinos and members of the extremist (and inherently racist) civic committees who identify primarily with the lowland political and landholding "Eurocentric" elite. On the 11th of January, 2007, three people were killed and literally hundreds hospitalized with severe injuries. The conflicts were/are about race, class, land reform, indigenous sovereignty, the decolonization of Bolivia's constitution (the Constituent Assembly), and oil and gas resources. To put all this into context, please take a look at an article written by Boilivia-based Mexican journalist/activist Luis A. Gomez:
More soon, from beneath the Killing Floor,
“ A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just’. It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of
“Next to money and guns, the
We, as activists, as American “do-gooders”, mostly continue to compartmentalize our understandings of economic justice. In our decades-long efforts at dismantling racism and building class solidarity we rarely touch upon the fact that economic growth demands cultural uprootedness and the dis-value of vernacular, indigenous wisdom. Nor do we even come close to identifying that that uprootedness is what allows us to become economized, what forces us to become competitive, violent individuals, mere consumers; what Ivan Illich earlier referred to as Homo Economicus, later as Homo Miserabilis. I am not trying to be tricky or vague here. The industrial era has grossly crippled us. We are ensnared in the web of the market, the global economy, and have traded off our commitment to place for a truly dizzying array of goods and services. Economic growth cannot permit conflictive allegiances. So, we spin things by correlating “liberty” to the uninhibited acquisition of more comforts and luxuries, and then will send our sons to war to protect this “right”. We no longer know what the good life, la vida dulce, might look and feel like. There is no functioning social fabric where one experiences such intangibles as care, solidarity, reciprocity. All these acts have been transformed into commodities. We’ve been duped into thinking that cultural traditions, place-based wisdom, the holistic and harmonious, the small and simple, - manifestations of the indigenous, and the vernacular-are impediments to “progress”. There is a radical analysis shared by certain intellectuals and activists that, before certain nations’ began violent colonialist and imperialist expansion/ subjugation of "the other", their own citizenry had to be colonized mentally. Uprooted from the land; ties severed, allegiances subsumed, convinced that the land based practices and communal responsibility practiced by our relatives were backwards, embarrassing. We had to be “individualized”, reduced to the lowly titled of “consumer” and, every few years, “voters”. This is what it means to be “economized”.
We are in a minefield. There are craters all around us. Certain words and notions are grenades. Pick one up: “Progress”- bam! “Poverty”-boom! “Development”, “Modernity”, “consumer confidence”, “Production”, “Industrialization” “First World”, “Third World”, on and on. Could this cruelty-uprootedness, placelessness- that we are all being subjected to be the source of our ethnic, race, gender, and class violence, not even mentioning the most obvious; the violence wrought upon the earth!?! From southern
Let us be careful not to side with a mere illusion; “I’m on ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’s’ side!”, I hear some growl. “I’m for ‘progress’, ‘development’, and ‘the end of poverty’ I hear the well-schooled argue. The great, almost-forgotten,
It almost doesn’t translate, this dignified life in the foothills of the
“they have clubbed us off the streets they are stronger
they are rich they hire and fire the politicians the newspaperedi-
tors the old judges the small men with reputations the collegepresidents
the wardheelers (listen businessmen collegepresidents judges
the uniforms the policecars the patrolwagons
all right you have won you will kill the brave men our
turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our
fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul
their hired men sit on the judge’s bench they sit back with their
feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant
of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the
they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to
throw the switch
all right we are two nations
-from the trilogy
John Dos Passos
Albert Camus wrote, in The Rebel , “Economics, in fact, coincides with pain and suffering in history.” In that same book he also wrote, “The myth of unlimited production brings war in its train as inevitably as clouds announce a storm.” Some say that when Jesus entered the temple to drive out the sullying presence of the moneylenders he wielded a whip. The severity of our current situation cannot be denied. I’m consciously calling upon our collective legacy of rebelliousness here. We can derive much strength from it. Hell, my great grandfather, Jacob Nisula, was a Wobbly. As a young Finnish immigrant arriving through Ellis Island, he ended up in near indentured servitude in the silver mines of
The lines in the sand are abysses really. When we peer down into them we’re often frightened stiff by a sense of vertigo. Though if we are genuinely committed to a larger struggle for liberation and the recuperation of dignity we must not only look unwaveringly into them. We must, in a sense, rappel down into them, down to rock bottom. There we can shine a light and identify the institutions, political structures and social constructs that dis-value (meaning, rendering something nonexistent, as opposed to simply placing it at a lower place on a hierarchy) the vernacular, the dignity of subsistence-oriented communities and, as Dr. King noted, place “profits before people”.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
"We have embodied our world view in our institutions and are now their prisoners."