Tulia Thompson draws on scenes from literature and her own life to illustrate the reality of poverty in Aotearoa and small acts of resistance. A personal essay from the new collection Life on Volcanoes: Contemporary Essays.
Tulia Thompson draws on scenes from literature and her own life to illustrate the reality of poverty in Aotearoa and small acts of resistance. A personal essay from the new collection Life on Volcanoes: Contemporary Essays.
In The Chimes, New Zealander Anna Smaill’s dystopian novel about a music-based social order, ‘In the Under’ is the phrase used by a gang of scavengers for their underground searches for pieces of ‘the Lady’, remnants of silver connected to the loss of memories. Lucien, their mysterious leader, sings the location of the Lady, the group plays it back. They are outcasts.
The Chimes filtered into my internal world. The phrase ‘In the Under’ sifted and shifted within my consciousness so that I use it for the weeks when I am Under: short of money, and in a changed, bleak emotional landscape. My life narrows and takes on its own metallic glint. At first I thought the phrase fitted because there is some energy to it, like an explosion in the back of your brain; agency in actively seeking out ways to stay afloat. But later, turning the phrase over, I realised that what feels so like being In the Under is the way that while you are running, you are unable to stop and do other everyday things. You are removed from the as-usual, or the comfortable. It is sustained. You are moving quickly and are stationary at the same time. Worst of all, you are separated from others as if by an invisible skin. You have different internal paces – theirs is ordinary and yours is urgent.
I am using my lived experience of being poor in Aotearoa to ask whether we need to radically recognise the failure of neoliberal capitalism, as a prerequisite to meaningful social change.
I felt worried (I am a very anxious person!) writing this essay, in case anti-capitalist writing would damage my chances of getting any paid writing work – the way we think of ourselves as brands now! I had to tell myself that few people will read this, and definitely only those who are already Left! I worried it could alienate me from friends who are Left, but comfortable-with-capitalism Left. I wondered if I would seem too radical; or worse, too dull. I made a mug of Earl Grey tea and sat outside on the recently painted garden bench I’ve described as “communist brown”, in the sun, and wondered if that was it at all or if, underneath that, I am afraid of people pitying me. I don’t want to be pitied.
I want to be understood.
I am poor, and I’ve been poor most of my life. I am 39. I’ve had a few years where I had professional work and was not poor. I did a PhD so have had educational privilege through my access to learning. Despite this, my writing output has gone into poorly paid or unpaid or unfinished projects, so while writing is my life-work, it doesn’t pay my rent.
Alongside that, I have complex-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C- PTSD) and associated major depressive disorder, so paid work is usually disjointed or non-existent. I am on a ‘jobseeker’ benefit with a medical exemption.
I was sitting on a bar stool alone at a gig, an Auckland Action Against Poverty fundraiser, sipping a cola because I didn’t have $9 for a glass of wine. A mild and almost conspicuously tidily dressed guy sitting next to me asked me what I did. I felt my stomach clench.
“I write,” I said. I can’t remember whether it slipped out a little coldly and awkwardly, or whether I was grinning with bravado. Both seem possible.
“A writer!” he said smiling, “I don’t know how you manage to survive!” “Ah,” I said, it caught somewhere. We were at an AAAP fundraiser, for god’s sake. I have a lifelong problem with needing to be authentic. I felt this panicked need to convey that I don’t survive through my writing, i.e. I’m a writer on a benefit, (here’s where it gets convoluted) in case I got to know him better, and he found out I am on a benefit, and therefore thought I was fraudulent by claiming to be a writer. So I said, “No, I mean, I guess I don’t really – manage – to survive.”
Which, now I write it down, does seem fucking cryptic and like a Chekhov play.
“No, I mean it,” he looked slightly pained, “I really don’t know, how you manage to survive. ”
There we were at a complete conversational standstill, both exhausted by effort. I saw that he felt sorry for me. Or maybe I was projecting. A resilient person might have said thanks, graciously. I felt stuck; nothing about my actual survival felt sayable in a noisy bar when you are trying to enjoy some bands. I didn’t feel like ‘leaning in’ and telling him about buying discount food at Pak’nSave, or how I’ve been paying off a $120 vet bill in $6 weekly automatic payments, or how I have some visible brown holes in my back teeth but haven’t been to the dentist (for years!). My life felt too meagre and dull under someone else’s gaze. I felt too fragile. I smiled what I hoped was a “such is life” smile, and said I was going to meet a pretend friend outside.
I am Not your Past: You are Not my Future
It feels difficult to talk about my everyday life while avoiding the usual depictions of poverty, because poverty is often represented in ways that feel inauthentic and one-dimensional. Poor people lack real choices in a system where human rights are monetarised and where value is so often conflated with consumerism. But while we lack material choices, our life experience is still complex and multifaceted.
The word ‘poor’ describes both lacking money or material possessions and (a person) deserving sympathy. Think of synonyms like ‘unfortunate’, ‘wretched’ and ‘hapless’! ‘Poor’ itself seems bound up with a sympathetic rather than empathetic response. The poor person is positioned inferiorly. But what word to use? Emma, my flatmate from South London, says she’s ‘skint’, a word for having no money that feels like it’s spoken by working class to working class. I wish we had a better word here that speaks to our local context.
In literature, even progressive literature, poor lives are frequently represented as being in the past, as the ‘before’ to an affluent future. In media, there’s a sensationalist ‘rags-to-riches’ archetype. In Dickens’ Great Expectations, an arguably anticapitalist novel intended to confound expectations of wealth, Pip still goes from uneducated orphan to educated agent for his friend’s company, and might end up with wealthy Estella.
For most of my life, I believed this narrative of a brighter future like it was a second skin ... “You are such a bright girl, you’ll go far.”
What I should really say is, for the longest time, for most of my life, I believed this narrative of a brighter future like it was a second skin. I believed that I was in the ‘before’ picture of my life. There is an immense amount of comfort to be gained from believing that there is an ‘after’. From this to that. And it was what my teachers told me throughout school. “You are such a bright girl, you’ll go far.”
Of course, this is a lovely thing to say. Teachers no doubt said far worse things to other kids. It certainly wasn’t the most harmful thing they could have said. In part, I think because I had a Fijian Dad and a Pākehā Mum, I was probably the mixedrace version of a ‘model minority’; a Pacific kid fair-skinned enough to avoid direct racism, and willing and able to fit within a Pākehā system, even though I was conscious something was not right about it. I think that ‘exceptional’ smart Pacific kids are loved by teachers partially because they become a vehicle for Pākehā teachers to show their personal anti-racism, while subconsciously, they justify the continued oppression of their peers; a system that only works for exceptions (a Pākehā colonial fantasy played out in Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip. The book was haunted for me; I couldn’t escape the pressing fear that the Pākehā teacher was a paedophile.) It did harm me though, in small, habituated psychological ways. I became a minor, local version of Pip, having Great Expectations that I would go far, based on being smart. It was, however, completely wrong.
The narrative of ‘escaping’ poverty is both a right-wing and a liberal democratic narrative. The right-wing narrative is something like: “I made it out from poverty with only my coat.” It ignores structural inequalities both in wealth and social institutions in favour of the myth of an individual winner. The liberal democratic version of the narrative is something like: “Structural inequalities exist. Education will lift you out of poverty.”
What this ignores is that the entire working- and under-classes cannot be lifted out of poverty without serious social change. Our capitalist society depends on the unemployed to keep wages down. So a few, smart kids, a chosen few, might be lifted out of poverty, and we are all reassured that the system is just, a kind of economic survival of the fittest. We believe that others deserve to be poor. My teachers saw in me a propensity for learning, or even, generously, a thirst for knowledge or a curiosity about the world, but they should’ve seen this in every kid.
What teachers saw in me was minor compared to the things they did not see, so could not name, i.e. that my extreme absorption into books was a symptom of trauma from the violence I experienced at home. When I was ten I started having severe anxiety, actual writer’s block, because I knew I couldn’t produce poems like the poems I was given to read in my extension language group, like William Carlos Williams. I only wrote one poem that year – a four-line poem about my sister’s black cat sitting at the window at night with yellow saucer eyes – and I had almost daily anxiety that I would be asked to leave the group. No teacher ever approached me about it.
When Mum realised I wasn’t writing she sat alongside me at our long wooden table. The naked light-bulb pooled yellow light in the shadowed room. She tried to coach me by suggesting ideas and sat reading as I wrote. Being an extreme introvert, it felt entirely invasive, as if she were attempting to read my mind. It galvanised what I thought I knew – that not writing was not an option and I had to work harder. It was the first bloom of depression and anxiety that would be pervasive throughout my life.
You can put up with a lot of shit if you’re convinced that things are going to get better.
The narrative of a bright future still hits me. You can put up with a lot of shit if you’re convinced that things are going to get better. I got through my whole childhood that way! In my fantasy of life working out, I imagine managing more paid work. I imagine a braver, more grounded, expansive version of myself who is able to reply to emails and meet deadlines. My recovery hit a difficult snag a few years ago when I found out that I am going to (eventually) develop a serious neurological disorder. In an over-lit hospital room with a kindly but grim-faced nurse, I asked if there was anything I could do, to delay it.
“Stress,” she said, “you need to avoid stress.”
It was ironic, I had never been so stressed in my life. Poverty too, is stressful. Now I’m stressed about not being able to manage my stress.
But more than that, the diagnosis shook a core belief that things would work out, that I would eventually have a professional job and a happy, well, middle-class life. Since then, I’ve had to radically adjust my line of sight so that I focus on my life as it is.
Katherine Mansfield’s short story ‘Prelude’ explores tensions between an upper-middleclass family and the working-class folk they interact with. Mansfield is keenly aware of class pretensions. Wellington historian Redmer Yska has recently argued that the Beauchamps, Katherine’s own family and the model for the Burnells in ‘Prelude’, were not a snobby family, and that their reserve towards the poor reflected their very real fear of death and contagion based on poor sanitation in Wellington city. This is fascinating, but it’s likely that both reasons for their reserve are true: social class would have been as much a tangible reality as Wellington city sewer stink. Being a sociologist, my bias would be that ‘Prelude’ is also a story about capital, and about paid and unpaid work.
The fictional Burnells – like the Beauchamps – move to Karori, to land that the father describes as “dirt cheap”: “land about here is bound to become more and more valuable”. In contrast, in Witi Ihimaera’s short story ‘Yellow Brick Road’, the Māori whānau have left Waituhi to travel for two days in an overloaded car, so that the Dad can find factory work: “And you have to go where the money is, ay Dad. No use staying in Waituhi and being poor all the time, ay.” The first family moves because it has wealth to buy land; land which is only “cheap” and available because of colonisation. The second family are In the Under, forced from their land to search out elusive silver to survive.
Capitalism through Five Ghosts
I want to examine the current capitalist moment in Aotearoa, and make connection to global capitalism through an interrogation of five silences. Silences have been something of a theoretical and personal preoccupation of mine, I’m used to noticing them. I’m particularly interested in those moments when words get proffered to detract or cover over what does not get said; in the mechanisms of maintaining things as they are. I’m going to shift between silences that are very personal, and some that speak to particular political decisions, and I’m making the case that these silences are deeply related.
The first ghost is an administrative silence. A lack of communication. A lack of money.
I check my bank balance and WINZ have paid me $150, lower than usual, and so I don’t have enough to pay rent. Not paying rent is the feeling of being plunged into the Under. I feel panicky, my heart beats loud in my chest. I can’t decide on a course of action. In the kitchen, filling our red kettle and waiting for it to boil, I realise my flatmate Kev has asked me a question and I have no idea what he has said. I say something stilted, I know I’m looking at the floor but I can’t chat as normal. I can’t meet his eyes. I am ashamed, and the shame muddles me. Yes, I probably feel shame as naturally as a fish breathes through its gills, but still, here I am. Something is exploding in my brain and all I can do is start running through the Under.
I don’t have any notification or email or anything telling me why I haven’t been paid my usual benefit amount. I deduce that, possibly, the three-monthly medical form my doctor fills out has run out. I waver about whether to make a doctor’s appointment. My doctor’s appointments cost $58. My doctor is lovely, knows all my messy, painful mental health details, so seeing a cheaper doctor doesn’t feel doable. The rational action to take would be to call WINZ before making a doctor’s appointment. I couldn’t. Last time I called, I was on hold for over an hour, before talking to someone who was unable to help. My nerves fail me. I don’t call WINZ. I don’t make a doctor’s appointment. I don’t pay rent. I take my dog Lucy for a walk.
The second ghost, a small silence, a long pause.
Finally I pay $26 of an outstanding doctor’s bill so that I can go to the doctor to get my medical exemption filled out. My doctor is supportive of me getting support from WINZ. Still – even in the very best of circumstances – it is a very awkward conversation.
“So last time you said you were doing some writing,” she said. She has shiny, warm blonde hair in a slick bob. She is wearing a stylish black-and-white dress. Outside the villa windows, I notice the perfectly manicured buxus hedge, and pale daffodils.
“Yes,” I said, “Yes, I’m still doing some writing.”
“So, no paid work at present?”
There it is: the second ghost, a small silence, a long pause.
“No, not at present.” My hands in my lap are trembling.
“You’re still going to psychotherapy?”
“Yes, I’m still going to therapy.”
This small ghost is the silence borne from awkwardness. It is entirely my own, my own shame and deep instinctual desire to shift my answers to what would be less shaming, like, “No, no, I’m fine, I’ve got an interview next week,” an urge to appease that I have to fight against, even when obviously, my doctor wants me to be able to get help from WINZ. It’s the same instinct that has gotten me into trouble at WINZ appointments, where I always end up sounding far too well.
But this small, second ghost is also connected to the shame of how long it is taking me to get well. I’ve struggled with severe depression and anxiety most of my life. It’s terrible to have painful things you need to recover from, and then reprimand yourself for not recovering from them faster. I get caught up in ruminating about whether I could do more to get well. Sometimes my rumination takes an angry turn and I think about how I’ve spent my whole adult life switching between antidepressants, with only brief periods of not being depressed. I think about how other people experience trauma but are more resilient than me – I haven’t been able to shake it off. If you really want to explore self-loathing, blaming yourself for your own lack of resilience is a good landing place.
Resilience is such a neoliberal yardstick, part of a range of character traits like enjoying crossfit or yoga, that make us better workers.
Feminist Sally Munt says that shame is always relational, and in feeling ashamed we take on the other as ego-ideal. In my case, it is definitely in this idea of personal resilience that neoliberal capitalism most sticks the knife in. It’s like it’s not enough that you have suffered trauma, you also have to show your strength and resilience. You can’t just recover, you are required to recover well. This is the neoliberal chimera I am most entranced by: a woman who has overcome immense trauma and is able to work and be successful. Of course, I know they exist. But what I mean is that resilience is such a neoliberal yardstick, part of a range of character traits like enjoying crossfit or yoga, that make us better workers. Who wouldn’t want to be resilient?! We are taught under neoliberalism to individualise and privatise our problems instead of seeing the structural issues underpinning them.
I have not sent in my disability review form. So I haven’t been getting the disability allowance for about two months. WINZ sent me a disability allowance review form and arranged a phone interview. During the phone interview, the well-meaning WINZ person decided my last year’s prescription charges of $51.30 sounded a little low, and asked me to go to the pharmacist and get a print-out of my actual prescription costs, which proved to be $85. But I haven’t taken the form back to WINZ. So my disability allowance has been stopped.
Why would anyone not return a form, if they need the money to survive? I spiral through feeling incompetent, out-of-control, and ashamed. But mostly, I feel profoundly anxious. So anxious that I push it out of my consciousness to avoid it. You know, anxious and depressed like someone who has a diagnosis of major depression and C-PTSD, and who therefore needs a disability allowance.
Across lots of ‘wealthy’ nations, there are people who – like me – were badly harmed by trauma in their childhoods ... distracted and dissociative and despairing; and so we are poor, and in part-time work, or vulnerable to the worst kinds of work.
What I want to unpack is the way that the actual situation with WINZ has become so immensely stressful for me that avoiding it feels better than getting money I am entitled to. Yes, some of me feeling stuck and helpless is due to my internal world, but even then, WINZ is triggering. And yes, I have taken advocates from AAAP, and yes they help, but overall the experience is still so deeply demoralising. You present WINZ with receipts, and letters, and payslips and they come back with a low amount that bears no relation to the evidence you have gathered.
So imagine across lots of ‘wealthy’ nations, there are people who – like me – were badly harmed by trauma in their childhoods, mostly by men. And in lots of places, we are not fully able to work; are distracted and dissociative and despairing; and so we are poor, and in part-time work, or vulnerable to the worst kinds of work. But instead of recognising the harm, and the right to heal, we then experience punitive welfare systems. And we are part of a much greater mass of people who are unable to work.
The third ghost is an interpersonal ghosting, an absence. There was this time I hooked up with this guy, a poor poet whose work I was editing (for free) who tells me he is always hustling. We drank a bottle of cheap red wine, I said things like, “You need more detailed imagery.” We pashed and stumbled into my room. I fumbled for condoms in my wooden dresser. Afterwards, I realised he hadn’t used one. The third ghost, a lack of language and prophylaxis. Stealthing. We understand more now post #MeToo about how consent can be partial (this but not that) or given and then stopped. About how consent should be enthusiastic rather than halting.
Even though I willingly had sex, I did not willingly have unprotected sex.
It made me feel small, as if my experience didn’t matter. It made me feel vulnerable. It reminded me that within patriarchal society, women’s bodies are routinely devalued and fetishised, and that we are vulnerable to rape and sexual assault. Talking to my women friends reveals that my condom story isn’t even so unusual, everyone has stories about guys asking not to use condoms. There are worse stories.
If you are poor, the $30–$50 for ‘emergency’ contraception from your local chemist is too much – there’s just no way your budget will stretch to that. You can go to Auckland Sexual Health, and get it for free, but you need to have an appointment with a nurse at Greenlane and answer awkward questions. I think lots of poor women must just chance it, especially if they are in low-wage work and working long shifts, unable to take the time off.
The fourth ghost is how, in her first year of office, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did not repeal Section 70A of the Social Security Act, which requires women on sole parent support to name the father of their children. The Labour Party campaigned hard on alleviating poverty, and ameliorating the treatment of beneficiaries and, in particular, the repeal of Section 70A. But then there was a resounding silence – a complete lack of immediate action. This has been a leadership decision that has been most chilling to me. The decision, then, can only be economic, about saving money by taking it away from some of our poorest children. There was no need to wait to repeal this.
What frightens me about Labour is that while they want to take measures to dull the worst blows of the capitalist system, they are still pro-capitalist.
Here is where the third ghost and the fourth ghost collide, fighting in a shadow play from their respective corners, Patriarchy and Neoliberalism. Women are devalued in our society, and then neoliberal cost-cutting marginalises them further by making them more economically precarious. Women already bear the brunt of our reproductive systems, carrying but also doing most of the care work of raising children. Through this silence, the government is making that burden even heavier. While its intention might be to force men to pay child support, to me Section 70A is an example of the neoliberal state enacting a policy that actually punishes poor women for their gender.
The fifth ghost, another silence, is how Jacinda Ardern could go to Nauru in September 2018 and not meet with the refugees. Yes, we have said that we will take 150 refugees to help Australia (why only 150?), but we haven’t condemned Australia’s actions as a breach of human rights. I don’t actually believe this silence was about our relationship with Nauru, or other Pacific Island countries. I think it was just about our trade relationship with Australia.
It frightens me that our neoliberal society is so focused on increasing trade that it becomes a mantra. It’s ironic when we pride ourselves on being an ‘independent’ nation, that we are so afraid of challenging Australia about its human rights abuses.
Australia’s hostility towards refugees – like the hostility of other European countries towards refugees – seems part of the same logic: the protection of capital is more important than alleviating human suffering.
Standing in the Park, Pretending that I’m Kezia
So today I take my dog Lucy to the park just down the road, and it is a lush, bright day. Blades of grass are bright with sunlight. I spread out my dark green sulu under some kind of palm tree; notice how the fingers of the palm break up the shade so that it falls gently.
The houses that back onto the park have continuous planting down their boundaries so that there is a merged fade between the end of their property and the park; beautiful native irises and aloes. People with capital have no qualms about using public space like that whereas, in poor areas, people with no capital would be policed. My sulu has the Sheraton logo printed on it even though no-one I know has ever stayed at the Sheraton in Fiji. I notice the breeze lifting and shaking through the palm leaves, as if they are there just for that wind.
Lucy is three dogs in one; some of her coat is curly, while other parts are coarse. She is a dog made for breezes. She lifts her head and sniffs the wind like she is smelling good things far away. If it’s a hot day and I’m going to walk Lucy in the evening when it’s cooler, I like to take her to the park around lunchtime, to just lie in the shade under a tree, because I worry she misses being outdoors. Maybe it’s silly and eccentric of me; I never see any other dog owners lying under trees with their dogs.
Anyway, today I take Mansfield’s ‘Prelude’, and it reminds me to pay close attention to nature. I take my shoes off and that feeling of being barefoot in a skirt reminds me simultaneously of one xmas day at Grandma’s, when it was just me, Leilani, and Henry, and Luke was a fat baby, when our family was still on the up-and-up before the crashing down, or maybe we just didn’t see it yet, exploding,
and Grandma lived in a modern, brick ‘n’ tile unit, bordered with bright cottage flowers and incredibly soft grass. That rare, childhood happiness of having whatever you like to eat, of knowing that there are good things to come. And simultaneously, the grass under my feet trips a memory of another xmas day, maybe when I was in my twenties, wearing a skirt and drinking wine in the sun with a girlfriend, not having to rush to family xmas. And these memories make me laugh and walk with Lucy, through the park without shoes on. And as I walk, I think about the story I’ve read, and I start imagining Kezia, grown up. And I’m kind of imagining that I am Kezia, or at least, that I have her lens on the world, and I am 1920s Kezia leaning her hand gently against a palm tree, noticing how coarse it is. And maybe Kezia might be poor, and yes, Kezia would have a wild, wolf-like dog as a companion.
And then I look up and one of the local dog owners, a man in his sixties with very trim hair and a polo shirt and expensive sandals with a labradoodle, is looking at me, caught between an awkward smile of greeting, and not knowing what to say to the dishevelled woman standing barefoot in the dog-park, leaning with one hand against a palm tree. I smile and blush and say, “C’mon, Lucy” in some kind of gruff, horsey, upper-class voice, and go back to retrieve my shoes, as if it is somehow Lucy’s fault that I’m barefoot, like maybe we were doing some kind of agility training. And it feels like a class thing, it feels like my neighbour and his expensive, coutured pooch belong in the park, while me and Lucy do not. But then, I’m soothed by thinking how, if I was well-off, I would still be pretty strange.
The way being poor can make you an interloper in the street you live in.
In the Under
My brain often tells me things are hour-by-hour or day-by-day. I’ll just be in a managing survival mode, or absorbed by trying to feel less bad.
Being poor shaped writing this essay. I couldn’t get books out of the library, because I had $40 of fines on my library card. I tried to write it without more books; I have a lot of books but mostly fiction and poetry, not the theoretical works I needed, apart from the old popular press versions of The Communist Manifesto and Capital I had claimed from Mum’s house. When I got paid, I went into Onehunga library and paid $30 to get it down to the amount of fines I could still borrow with.
I tried to download ebooks on my phone, but I didn’t have enough space for the library’s ebook app. I have a crappy old huawei with a cracked screen that leaves small chips of glass in my bag. It’s been like this for over a year. I only have a few apps; a meditation app that I use every day, spotify, facebook lite and messenger. I tried to delete some in-built apps. I deleted photos of my dog. I deleted messenger. When I got the app to run and could download books, I was so elated that I stayed up until three am reading.
One of the awful aspects of being poor is that it has changed my friendships. There are lots of people whom I like but whom I don’t see because I can rarely initiate social events, or if I’m invited to something – like going out for dinner, or brunch, or to a movie – it’s too much for me to say yes to. Or even visiting friends when I don’t have a car, and busing to say, Mt Eden, which is fairly local, costs $5.50 each way, $11 for a round trip.
Reciprocity matters, we all want to contribute.
Then there are other relationships that are trickier. I have some friends whom I’ve been close with for twenty years. We might sit in the booths in Verona on K’Road, and they’ll buy me a soy flat white, or a glass of red wine, or whatever. Sometimes they might shout me dinner out. I’m grateful for years of shared conversation with women who know my whole story. I’m also very aware that their generosity is never reciprocated, except through my own listening, but that if I was earning more I would take turns buying coffee or wine. When we were teenagers or undergrads none of us had any money, so there was an evenness to it. Now they have professional jobs and I do not. It would be good if it evened out in other ways but actually it doesn’t really. It makes me feel a pain under my rib cage to think about it. Reciprocity matters, we all want to contribute.
I know other poor people don’t have the social privilege to have such relationships.
Kezia drinks Tea in the Belly of the Whale.
Returning to The Chimes, there is a chapter I love called ‘Into the Belly of the Whale’, when the protagonist Simon visits a crone-like character called Mary: “The woman’s face is all wrinkles, like all the years and all the living of several people have been pressed into one body, one face.” Mary speaks in riddles and proverbs, she can see others’ memories, stored in objects. It’s a kind of misstep in Simon’s journey; he is searching for a group of dissidents called Ravensguild, but when he finds Mary she is the last of her kind and the guild has been suppressed. It’s also just one of those delightful chapters where the pace of the plot slows, while characters drink tea: “She comes up behind me, a dark shape in her cloak, and reaches down a large brown teapot covered in a wool cosy.”
When I read about Simon meeting Mary for the first time, it reminded me of when Lucy has tea with the faun Mr Tumnus in Narnia. It’s interesting to think about the role of these interludes, when the plot slows down to show moments of community, connection and love. In the outerworld of the fantasy, evil forces are still reigning, but these social moments between characters tell us more about what it means to survive everyday life under a system we have no power to change. And the value of these moments is that they provide a counter to the values of capitalism. Like Lucy and her siblings’ tea party with the Beavers, and their xmas presents later on, they hint towards a different social order.
Given its anti-capitalist potential, unsurprisingly it is the working-class characters who do the real-life work of emotional holding. In Great Expectations, Pip is cared for by his step-brother Joe, and cares for convict Magwich. In ‘Prelude’, sensitive Kezia is overcome with grief when driver Pat chops the head off a duck, but then is soothed by him: “she put up her hands and touched his ears. She felt something. Slowly she raised her quivering face and looked. Pat wore little gold ear-rings.”
But it’s women who contribute most significantly to connection and care through unpaid and emotional labour. For over a century Marxists have argued that capitalism depends on this labour of women. I agree, but I think that women’s unpaid work is still alienated; we don’t recognise its true worth. Which is: because it is caring, it is anti-capitalist.
The other night I walked up the road to the local pub, Zack’s Bar, and listened to The Turtlenecks playing jazz. I drank a $10 apple cider, which I sat on all night until the barman came and asked us to please buy more drinks, he was trying to make a living; so I left due to lack of funds. I understood; they are a friendly neighbourhood bar struggling to stay afloat. I understand being afraid of the Under. But while I was there, we sat against the open window, and nineties music videos played on an out-of-place T.V. I told Finn, a musician with long blond dreads, that I was writing an anticapitalist essay, and we chatted about Marx’s life, and he recommended reading Silvia Federici. And while we were discussing Marxism, and just being a community, I felt kinship, and belonging, and the joy of being a human in relationship with other humans.
I want to give some examples of things about myself and my life that I really love, not to merely suggest that there is a possible positive narrative of what poor lives are like, because I’m too anticapitalist for that – I am not interested in absolving the neoliberal state – but because I think the things I really value about my life are in opposition to the goals and ambitions of neoliberal capitalism.
So today, instead of dealing with WINZ and doctor’s appointments, I took Lucy for a walk. My dog has extreme anxiety brought about by PTSD, she barks like a war machine if men approach us, and she is ambling and scruffy. Walking my dog is always the happiest part of my day. We both get to be in nature, and are soothed by it. We walked the Parnell Rose Gardens. Climate change has brought about an intensity of blooming that would usually happen in a few months’ time. The roses are prolific enough that you can smell them in drifts as the breeze lifts. Lucy can never understand why I linger near the roses instead of sniffing better, smellier things. We walk past a profusion of soft pink and magenta rose petals, accentuated by lilac and gold. I admire it, and feel lucky to live in a city where someone is paid to design public gardens, that we can enjoy for free.
And I feel this pleasure, this contentment in my life as it is. I refill my water bottle, and lay out a sulu, and lie down on my stomach reading a book on Marxism. And while I am lying on my stomach, reading about Marx’s life, and while Lucy was content to lie in the shade without barking at anyone, I felt something like – being wildly happy – with my life.
I think that under capitalism, we are in so many ways alienated from who we could be, but I think we get small glimpses of it, in those moments when we are able to recognise that being human is separate from the ideas imposed on us by neoliberalism. These moments draw me closer to the other things I really love and value about my life.
Here’s what I don’t miss while being poor.
I don’t miss spending money on clothes, or hair-cuts. Spending money on clothes doesn’t necessarily feel that good. I think there are some people for whom clothing gives genuine pleasure, and why not, but I think there are also a lot of people, like me, who put energy and effort into clothing out of a sense of needing to keep up, and who wouldn’t suffer at all if they put that time and energy into something else. I rarely wear make-up. I op-shop for all my clothes. I definitely don’t keep up with fashion trends, I don’t miss it at all. I never wish I had more clothes, except sometimes for really practical things like a raincoat, or shoes without holes. I definitely have fewer people being romantically interested in me, but honestly I feel like it’s a good filter. Anyone who couldn’t be attracted to me in old jeans and a scruffy tee-shirt isn’t really going to fit well with my priorities and what I believe in.
But the things that I am doing to be fine, like reading and writing about my life, feel meaningful to me. Feel like a meaningful life. And I feel okay with that. So what I mean is – while I would like my life to not have the fear of non-payments and the precariousness of not making rent (i.e. the basic physiological and safety needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which posits basic needs have to be met before you can meet psychological needs and self-fulfillment) – I am okay about being poor. I don’t want to be middle-class, or rich. I just want a life with respect, reciprocity and dignity, and to be able to go to the doctor, and so on. The funny thing I sense about being poor is that it is wealthy people who believe I should rise above. I think because it validates the value they put on commodities and the ease associated with it.
Marxism and Dreaming the End of Capitalism
I was a bit disappointed in the quick resolution of The Chimes. Sonja, Lucien’s sister, plays beautiful and discordant music on the massive organ and the whole social order collapses. The music is a kind of truth; music more complex than the regime could account for. It was poetic, but for me it shifted the novel into allegory and lost some realism. I would have liked her music to be the first strike against the order, but not its ruin; maybe the music could have been taken up and shifted and amplified by other resistance fighters. Maybe it’s just that in Middle Earth, we’ve come to expect our fantasy in trilogies. Maybe it’s that I’ve grown cynical about how much work it takes to undo a social order.
Even when socio-economic systems are unethical, harmful to people and the environment, and even violent, they are difficult to undo. There are powerful forces (people and institutions and markets) that keep them functioning, because people act in their own self-interest, which Marx described as class interests.
I was at a party where a slightly intoxicated guy asked what I was writing, and then pronounced, “Karl Marx! Communism has never worked!” and then, “Why don’t you write a real story about the real lives of people struggling up north?”
There are psychological questions we could ask about why, within rape culture, some men flirt by trying to prove they are smarter than you, and by trying to get closer and push you down at the same time. I am never convinced that they are very smart. I smiled blandly and extricated myself from the conversation.
Nevertheless, the idea that communism has never worked is the charge most levelled at communism. Historian Gregory Claeys argues that while we have seen totalitarian communist regimes, we have not seen democratic communism as Marx intended. Marx intended social change to come through widespread political consciousness, rather than violence by a few revolutionaries.
And what about the failure of capitalism? Italian Marxist and feminist theorist Silvia Federici has shown that the killing of women accused of witchcraft during the 1700s was a consequence of commons land being privatised – an act of early capitalism. Often older widowed women, who previously had rights to harvested crops, had those rights taken away. They were economically marginalised. Previous writing on the ‘witch-trials’ had focused on how many cases suggested women did do some perceived wrongdoing before being accused of bewitching farm animals and the like. Federici points out that these women had reason to be angry and even rebellious. The land that they relied on for survival was taken away.
Capitalism doesn’t work for the vulnerable. I can relate to the crones.
I think the aspect of communism that seems the most difficult to put into practice is knowing what to do about our current global reliance on multinational corporations to produce goods and services which are vital for our survival, and we like and care about. But corporations could maintain aspects of their current business models and practices. The Communist Manifesto calls for “a heavy progressive or graduated income tax”, but interestingly, not the end of incomes. Theoretically at least, people would have more money to spend. The significant shift would be that instead of having profits go to business owners that are the 1% hoarding the world’s wealth, the profits could be redistributed between the workers (who would become owners) and be significantly taxed, either providing for national coffers or in the case of multinationals, to funds run by the UN. We can make use of existing infrastructure, skills and systems – we wouldn’t have to dismantle everything to redistribute wealth. And maybe once corporations were owned by the workers that worked for them, there would be shifts in how companies are organised.
Feminist science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin gave a speech at the National Book Awards in 2014 where she said: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art – the art of words.”
Resistance begins with words, but also with brown teapots, and caring, and places to imagine the end of capitalism. To imagine the end of the Under.
Read a review by Veronica Maughan.
Feature image: RachelH_ (Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0)
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.