The alternative economy of compassion

From "Further Adventures in the Territories of Hope" by Rebecca Solnit...

Capitalism is only kept going by this army of anti-capitalists, who constantly exert their powers to clean up after it, and at least partially compensate for its destructiveness. Behind the system we all know, in other words, is a shadow system of kindness, the other invisible hand. Much of its work now lies in simply undoing the depredations of the official system. Its achievements are often hard to see or grasp.

The Iceberg Economy

Who wouldn't agree that our society is capitalistic, based on competition and selfishness? As it happens, however, huge areas of our lives are also based on gift economies, barter, mutual aid, and giving without hope of return (principles that have little or nothing to do with competition, selfishness, or scarcity economics). Think of the relations between friends, between family members, the activities of volunteers or those who have chosen their vocation on principle rather than for profit.

Think of the acts of those - from daycare worker to nursing home aide or the editor of TomDispatch.com - who do more, and do it more passionately, than they are paid to do; think of the armies of the unpaid who are at "work" counterbalancing and cleaning up after the invisible hand and making every effort to loosen its grip on our collective throat. Such acts represent the relations of the great majority of us some of the time and a minority of us all the time. They are, as the two feminist economists who published together as J. K. Gibson-Graham noted, the nine-tenths of the economic iceberg that is below the waterline.

The official economic arrangements and the laws that enforce them ensure that hungry and homeless people will be plentiful amid plenty. The shadow system provides soup kitchens, food pantries, and giveaways, takes in the unemployed, evicted, and foreclosed upon, defends the indigent, tutors the poorly schooled, comforts the neglected, provides loans, gifts, donations, and a thousand other forms of practical solidarity, as well as emotional support. In the meantime, others seek to reform or transform the system from the inside and out, and in this way, inch by inch, inroads have been made on many fronts over the past half century.

The terrible things done, often in our name and thanks in part to the complicity of our silence or ignorance, matter. They are what wells up daily in the news and attracts our attention. In estimating the true make-up of the world, however, gauging the depth and breadth of this other force is no less important. What actually sustains life is far closer to home and more essential, even if deeper in the shadows, than market forces and much more interesting than selfishness.

Most of the real work on this planet is not done for profit: it's done at home, for each other, for affection, out of idealism, and it starts with the heroic effort to sustain each helpless human being for all those years before fending for yourself becomes feasible. Years ago, when my friends started having babies I finally began to grasp just what kind of labor goes into sustaining one baby from birth just to toddlerhood.

If you do the math, with nearly seven billion of us on Earth right now, that means seven billion years of near-constant tending only to get children upright and walking, a labor of love that adds up to more than the age of this planet. That's not a small force, even if it is only a force of maintenance. Still, the same fierce affection and determination pushes back everywhere at the forces of destruction.

The Alternatives to "There Is No Alternative"

We not only have a largely capitalist economy but an ideological system that justifies this as inevitable. "There is no alternative," as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used to like to say. Many still argue that this is simply the best human nature, nasty to the core, can possibly hope to manage.

Fortunately, it's not true. Not only is there an alternative, but it's here and always has been. Recently, I had dinner with Renato Redentor Constantino, a climate and social justice activist from the Philippines, and he mentioned that he never cared for the slogan, "Another world is possible." That other world is not just possible, he pointed out, it's always been here.

We tend to think revolution has to mean a big in-the-streets, winner-take-all battle that culminates with regime change, but in the past half century it has far more often involved a trillion tiny acts of resistance that sometimes cumulatively change a society so much that the laws have no choice but to follow after. Certainly, American society has changed profoundly over the past half century for those among us who are not male, or straight, or white, or Christian, becoming far less discriminatory and exclusionary.

Do not underestimate the power of this force. The world could be much better if more of us were more active on behalf of what we believe in and love; it would be much worse if countless activists weren't already at work from Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and the climate activists in Tuvalu to the homeless activists around the corner from me. When I studied disasters past, what amazed me was not just that people behaved so beautifully, but that, in doing so, they found such joy. It seems that something in their natures, starved in ordinary times, was fed by the opportunity, under the worst of conditions, to be generous, brave, idealistic, and connected; and when this appetite was fulfilled, the joy shone out, even amid the ruins.

By the way, in searching for that Thatcher no-alternative quote, I found myself on a page at Wikipedia that included the following fundraising plea from a Russian woman scientist: "Almost every day I come home from work and spend several hours improving Wikipedia! Why would I donate so much of my free time? Because I believe that by giving my time and effort - along with thousands of other people of different nationalities, religion, ages - we will one day have shared and free knowledge for all people."

Imperfect as it may be, ad-free, nonprofit Wikipedia's sheer scope of 3.5 million entries in English alone, to say nothing of smaller Norwegian, Vietnamese, Persian, and Waray-Waray versions with more than 100,000 articles each, is an astonishing testimony to a human urge to work without recompense when the cause matters.

You see what you're looking for. Most of us are constantly urged to see the world as, at best, a competitive place and, at worst, a constant war of each against each, and you can see just that without even bothering to look too hard. But that's not all you can see.

Writing my recent book about disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell, led me to look at the extraordinary way people behave when faced with catastrophes and crises. From news coverage to Hollywood movies, the media suggest that, in these moments of turbulence when institutions often cease to function, we revert to our original nature in a Hobbesian wilderness where people fend for themselves.

Here's the surprise though: in such situations, most of us fend for each other most of the time - and beautifully at that. Perhaps this, rather than (human) nature red in tooth and claw, is our original nature. At least, the evidence is clear that people not only behave well, but take deep pleasure in doing so, a pleasure so intense it suggests that an unspoken, unmet appetite for meaningful work and vibrant solidarities lives powerfully within us. Those appetites can be found reflected almost nowhere in the mainst "utopian," impossible to reach because of our savage competitiveness, and so should be left to the most hopeless of dreamers.

The Compassion Boom

If I were to use the normal language of the marketplace right now, I'd say that compassion and altruism are hot. It might, however, be more useful to say that the question of the nature of human nature is being reconsidered at the moment by scientists, economists, and social theorists in all sorts of curious combinations and coalitions. Take, for example, the University of California's Greater Good Science Center, which describes itself as studying "the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society." Founding director Dacher Keltner writes, "Recent studies of compassion argue persuasively for a different take on human nature, one that rejects the preeminence of self-interest."

Written by Rebecca Solnit for TomDispatch.com. She is the author of 13 books, including last year's "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster", and this year's "Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas" which examines the many layers of meaning in one place.