Money is a system of power. The more our lives depend on money, the greater our subservience to those who control the creation and allocation of money.
–David Korten, co-founder of Yes! Magazine.
In my explorations of how we can replace the money-jobs system, I have come across a few people who occasionally ask me how we would get people to do the scut work of society (dirty, unpleasant, and even unsafe, low status, but necessary jobs) if we did not pay? We should actually be asking if, in a monetized society, that scut work is really necessary, why does it pay so little?
Actually, the first thing we should ask is if the scut work is really necessary? If not, shouldn’t we be doing without it, or are we just hung up on the idea that people must earn a living to survive? If the work is indeed important, can it be automated so that people don’t have to do it or at least as much of it? If it is necessary, how can we increase its status? And how can we pay more for work we really need?
Money-based societies throughout the world often fail to reward people who do work truly necessary to the well being of the community, often at big physical risk to themselves. For example, migrant farm workers in the United States are paid a pittance for harvesting fruits and vegetables. Many times these workers are exposed to dangerous pesticides, and other harsh conditions. Every human being must eat to survive. Scientists tell us that in order to stay healthy, we should eat 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Yet, the people who pick those fruits and vegetables are at the very bottom of our economic strata.
In Nepal, there is a subcaste within the “untouchable” Dalit caste, which is in charge of removing dead animals, and providing fire and other ritual objects for cremations. Because of their association with death, these people are at the very bottom of the social structure, and make very little money. They are not even allowed to use their village water wells, but must find a person of higher caste who is willing to fill their buckets for them. Yet, isn’t the removal of dead animals essential to the health of a community? Isn’t provision of ritual objects needed for funerals part of keeping the religious and cultural traditions of a community? Why are these people impoverished and despised for doing the community’s necessary scut work?
The worst part of this particular situation is that a Dalit man, who has risen above the expectations of his caste to become highly educated, has much trouble trying to organize these workers to fight for their rights. They cannot afford to forego the 200 rupees ($2.02USD) they receive per dead dog in order to fight for greater dignity.
People who live near or even in landfills in places such as Brazil are combing garbage heaps looking for scrap or lost items that they can sell for food or rent money. If you really think about it, you could say that these wretched souls are doing a form of recycling, a task that is important to the health of our environment, which, in turn, is important to human health. But it is still low-paying and low-status, even in the developed world.
I see “freelance” recyclers in Oakland moving from trashcan to trashcan along the city streets, gathering up recyclables. They store their finds in plastic bags stuffed into grocery carts, or, in the case of an older petite Asian woman I have seen many times, in plastic bags balanced in a pole slung across her back. They compete with professional recyclers who have specially color-coded dumpsters that they hoist onto the backs of big, corporate recycling trucks.
The task of recycling is acknowledged as important when a big corporation has a fat municipal contract to do it. Yes, Waste Management, Inc., I’m looking at you. The freelancers who pick up the same types of bottles and cans are just trying to “earn a living” in an economy that demands that they pay while simultaneously marginalizing them. They are called trespassers, thieves, and litterbugs–in truth, a few of them do leave a mess–for not being corporate.
A few years ago, the UN urged that this kind of work be more automated so that people did not have to pick through trash heaps as a “job”. A bit surprisingly, the UN got resistance from people representing the “freelancers” in places such as Brazil and India because they relied on this work for survival. I posted the story to a blog I had at the time and lamented the fact that these people had to do this kind of work. A commenter criticized me for putting my first world values on them. Yeah, right, another first worlder who would never have to do that work herself had the nerve to proclaim that not all people had choice but “At least they have an income.”
Why don’t they have choice? And why must they have income?
In California, we have a program called IHSS – In Home Supportive Services. It helps keep disabled people out of institutions, but the workers are low paid. Several years ago, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, looking to cut the budget, proposed that IHSS workers who were related to their clients should be willing to work for free. And who would pay for the workers’ expenses, Mr. “Governor so rich you only took a dollar a year in state salary”? Fortunately, the idea was dropped when a lot of people raised hell. In the money economy, if it is work, it should be paid unless the worker really wants to volunteer, and that choice must always be the worker’s. Workers cannot always afford to volunteer when they have bills to pay.
An argument for the importance of monetary systems is that money provides a way to ration scarce resources. Money is an irrational rationer. Consider water, for example. Much of the world is facing a growing water shortage. But distribution of water according to who has the money to pay for it makes no sense. Everybody needs water as a matter of basic survival, regardless of ability to pay. A wealthy person with the inclination to waste water will have the means to do so. I saw two examples of this in California decades ago during one of our periodic droughts. A newspaper article offered a look at how owners of four and five star hotels raised their room rates to reflect the fact that they were using more water than they should have under emergency guidelines, and therefore, had to pay penalties for excessive use. But patrons of these hotels did not care. They wanted to take long, luxurious high-water-pressure showers and would, and could, pay extra for the privilege if they had to. Ironically, people who conserved as the government requested eventually found themselves paying higher prices for water because the utility company was no longer selling as much water and was losing money. Talk about no good deed going unpunished!
There was a time when someone in the city of Walnut Creek was watering their lawn 24/7 in the middle of a drought. Neighbors who were conserving were furious and reported it to the media and the authorities. But the utility company said that as long at the customer’s account was in good standing—and this person paid on time, in full, every month, even with excessive use penalties, the water could not be turned off.
The way to distribute scarce resources is to set up a sharing system. Every member of a community is ENTITLED to a share of the community’s resources. Water is just one example of how the use of money to determine the distribution of a scarce resource leads to unjust and, in some case, truly asinine results. The same is true for other things, from shelter to food to health care. The fact that some people don’t have these needs met because others don’t want or need them in the productive economy does not justify the denial of resources. The only things that can really explain this unjust situation are the use of money and jobs to control other people, and the people’s belief in the money-jobs system, even if that system rejects, abuses, or in time, discards them.
When we recognize our common humanity and fundamental equality, we can begin to dismantle this system of control and stop trying to justify our existence by making money. Justify to whom? Why?
Kéllia Ramares-Watson is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is an advocate of demonetization and the gift economy, and is active on an international email discussion list of those subjects. She can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org