It’s okay to not die broke in a gutter. An ethical basis for making a living

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Many of my farmer, activist and artist friends are notorious for self exploitation. So, I want to give you all some ethical basis for why it’s okay to not die of self-imposed poverty in a gutter, and some activist reasons why I actually want you to become FREE (Financially Resilient/Economically (and Ethically) Empowered.)

If this is you, then I think you are doing some of the most important work out there, finding sustainable ways to feed people, protecting people, advocating for those whose voices aren’t heard, creating joy and beauty, documenting the truths of our era… so why do such good people often feel absolutely guilt-stricken over the idea of making a living doing their work, even though there is nothing ethically wrong with doing so? They may feel like evil “capitalists” for accepting pay, even though no capitalism has occurred.

Making a living is not capitalism. Exchange is not capitalism.

Directly exploiting other laborers in a way where you unfairly accumulate wealth by stealing the value of their labor is capitalism.

I personally prefer coops and sole proprietorships where possible, but I argue for giving a bit of leeway to the use of some consensual labor for some small local businesses (while also encouraging local businesses to be honest mindful about this dynamic.) I recognize a difference between a small business owner making a similar income to their happy employees, and Jeff Bezos making $200,000,000,000.00 off the labor of a miserable workforce. If everyone is happy, and no one involved thinks that exploitation is happening, then exploitation probably isn’t happening. I meet many artists who are happy to have flexible part time income, community, and respect from a supportive local cafe owner or restauranteur and proud to hang their art on their walls.

They’d never think of that person making a living as doing something necessarily unethical, yet they judge themselves for selling art they made or produce they grew with their own hands! (Note: I say this as someone who has avoided hiring any labor for the last 10 years, and has instead encouraged peer to peer business.)

One reason is we have internalized the messages of capitalism, that only corporate produce has value, and only corporate work should be paid. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about accepting pay from Ronald McDonald for participating in real exploitation, and harming ecosystems to sell crap that makes people sick, yet we feel guilty paying ourselves for good work.

Here is an ethical basis for accepting pay: in ecosystems organisms are interlinked by “energy transactions”, by meeting each other’s needs. Modern systems of agriculture, corporations and colonialism all break down those relationships, replacing those healthy vital relationships with an extractive relationship with the system, where there is a lot of waste, chaos and pollution.

It is the good, regenerative work of our era to repair those ecosystems and relationships.

In healthy human societies there is exchange and people have relationships that are vital and based on meeting needs, just as the tree and bird meet each other’s needs! That is good! It builds trust, depth of relationship, accountability, and mutualism! In our unhealthy society our relationships are made shallow, as instead of meeting each other’s needs, we mostly just “consume” in each other’s presence. We work in corporations together, consume corporate food together, consume corporate entertainment together, and consume “meaning” in bite sized servings from corporations.

This is why Permaculture Design founders “Bill Mollison and David Holmgren say that everyone should “obtain a yield“ for their work.

Because our work is to turn that corporate chaos into interconnected ecosystems. That means valuing the energy we contribute and accepting energy back in exchange for it, and accepting that people actually value us and WANT to support us!

And in a way… by giving our work away for free all the time, not only are we exploiting ourselves, we are amplifying this element of internalized capitalism, communicating that the produce of non-corporations has no value, and contributing to the exploitation of others. We may even be directly driving down wages for others when we devalue ourselves.

We may have also internalized some very unhelpful, vague, idealistic notions from the hippie movement of the past, that it is somehow vaguely unethical for people to make a living, or that money is the root of all evil. If you are being exploited you are a blameless victim, so it’s okay to support the like corporate system, man, but otherwise it’s bad to even think about money.

Perhaps we are taught to feel that way because taking our value seriously and investing in ourselves is revolutionary!

This dominant vague hippie notion that making a living is unethical has no revolutionary or transformative potential. It has no teeth!

Its only mechanism is just to judge others, and to wish to control their behavior. It’s just hopes and prayers. There are some state capitalist circles who like to call themselves “socialists” where the belief seems to be that if everyone becomes miserable enough then Elon Musk and Bill Gates will benevolently gift us a hippie state capitalist utopia, so efforts to not die of poverty in a gutter are counter-revolutionary.

Guess what: with no resources, no political capital, no control over the systems we need to meet our needs, capitalists are not going to stop harming the earth and people for profit because we feed them our hippie downer vibe.

Now this isn’t to say we follow the path of certain boomer hippies who burned out on their vague guilty self-exploiting idealism and turned into yuppie capitalists! The opposite of a bad idea is often not a good idea, but another bad idea. There is a middle path.

A serious, transformative and radical approach is to rebuild those ecosystems of mutual reliance, and directly regenerate control over the means of production of the system we rely upon to meet our needs. Its revolutionary to build a sun-powered, regenerative, solidarity economy, starting with ourselves. It’s revolutionary to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others, invest in ourselves so we can invest in others, to grow our community wealth, social and political capital long term in ways that divest from the corporate system, so we can effect real change at the societal level.

Making a living doesn’t have to be unethical. By transforming our livelihoods and lives, we can positively transform the world.

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