Friday, March 10, 2017

The Recovery of Subversive Virtue

About eight or nine years ago, a social movement came into existence in the United States.  It was not a particularly political movement, nor was it strategically planned, or even intentional.  Its birth was simply the result of the economic conditions which prevailed at that time, namely, very disruptive energy prices, a real estate bubble, and an overload of personal debt, especially among recent college graduates and other young people.  One word characterized that movement, namely, frugality.  This movement spread, not only by word of mouth, but by many websites and blogs, such as the Festival of Frugality blog ring, "How to Survive on $12,000 a Year," and "How I Live on Just $12,000 a Year," along with news articles such as "The Secret to Living Well on $11,000 a Year," "Living on $10,000 a Year Requires A Certain Ingenuity," and "How to Live on $10,000 A Year."

Evidently this movement grew to such an extent that it attracted the serious attention of the holders of concentrated wealth and economic power at the top of the economic heap.  For a number of op-ed pieces started coming out in major media outlets which warned Americans that frugality was a "threat to the economy" and a "threat to recovery."  I won't give you an exhaustive list, but there were such pieces as, "Frugal Americans Hurt Economic Recovery" (courtesy of Fox News, of course!), "How Shopping Is Good for The Economy - And Your Soul" (I kid you not!), "Frugality Is Bad For The Economy," and "Consumers Turn Frugal, But Economy Could Wither." There was also another, sideways attempt to derail the frugality movement by re-defining what frugality actually means.  Namely, it was an attempt to change the definition of frugality from "living only on that which you need" to "saving as much money as possible in your purchases - by taking advantage of coupons, promotions, sales, etc."  Many supposed promoters of frugality thus switched from warning people to stop buying stuff they didn't need, to trying to get as much stuff as possible via coupons and other means.  (For a present-day example of re-defining "simple living," you might try looking here.)

The fact that the owners of major media outlets felt the need to spend print space and air time trying to discourage frugality says something about the power of frugality as a threat to the current established economic order.  And as I have recently been thinking over the details of this movement, I have been struck by certain observations.  Firstly, that frugality, along with other social virtues, has been a particular threat to Western societies from the time of the Roman Empire.  I think of the Christian Church from the first century to the third, and I see how the peaceful, nonviolent obedience to the commandments of Christ must have threatened such a cruel military empire as that which the Romans had built.  Indeed, in his book Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority In the Second-Century Pagan World, author James Francis lays out this threat, and describes how the leaders and academics in charge of defending Roman values ridiculed such Christian virtues as asceticism, voluntary poverty, and communalism.  (They also attacked non-Christian ascetics.)  Of course, even a casual reading of the New Testament would reveal the roots of the radical values embodied by the proto-Church - as seen especially in the Lord's encounter with the rich young ruler, the Lord's denunciation of the Pharisees, the radicalism of Luke 14 and Luke 16, and the denunciation of the rich in James 5.

However, the Roman Empire succeeded in co-opting key elements of the Christian community, and one of the casualties of that co-opting was frugality and the rejection of materialism.  (For a look into how this happened, you might try looking here.)  Other virtues that died by the way were pacifism (the outright rejection of violence) and communalism.  I don't have time to describe the entire arc of the ensuing battle between materialism and voluntary simplicity since those times, but I do want to focus on another period in the history of the Church in which the recovery of New Testament virtues threatened to shake an existing social order.

That period began with the conversion of Peter Waldo to Christianity during the mid to late 12th century.  He founded a group within the Catholic Church who came to be known as the Waldenses or Waldensians, and they took the Scriptures seriously enough to actually try to live by the New Testament.  Among the elements of their fundamentalism were the following:
  • The priesthood of all believers
  • The need to give the Scriptures to people in their common language instead of a language (Latin) which most people could not understand
  • The need to live a life of voluntary simplicity, also known as voluntary poverty.
Just about all of the Waldensian doctrine and practices got them into hot water with the Catholic Church.  But the voluntary poverty of their preachers was a particularly troubling thing to deal with, because it made the wealth of the Catholic clerics look very bad by comparison.  The Catholic Church met the nonviolent threat of the Waldensians with violent repression.

What has been described above is not confined only to societies that have been exposed to Christianity nor to people who act solely from Christian values.  Frugality continues to be regarded as a terrifying threat to those who hold concentrated economic power in a society based on buying and selling.  It is only fitting that in these days, frugality should be revived as a subversive virtue.  I am glad to see that there are Christians who have been in the forefront of this revival, as seen in "Toward The Revival and Reform of The Subversive Virtue: Frugality," by James Nash.  (One of the subsections of his paper is titled, "Frugality As Economic Subversion."  (I like that!)  There is also "Voluntary Simplicity and Voluntary Poverty: Alternatives To Consumer Culture" by Malgorzata Poks. 

Frugality, or voluntary simplicity, or voluntary poverty - no matter what you call it, the widespread practice of such a way of living can shake a murderous, materialist society to its core.  (See this, this, and this, for instance.)  Therefore, it is an especially relevant way of living just now - in a world in which the majority of the world's people are now being ruled by greedy strongmen, including the regime of our 45th President.  The mass adoption of frugality by a society can bring down dictators who rule that society and the wealthy corporations that put those dictators in power.  And here's the good news: you don't have to sell everything and move to a gold-plated off-grid doomstead in Montana to live a frugal life.  It can be done right where you are, if you know how to think strategically about your situation.  In fact, the chances are good that over the next months and years, you will be forced to live such a life whether you want to or not.


Aimee said...

great post, I'll have to put that book on my reading list. Thank you. This brought to mind something I wrote in 2011, as a reaction to the Occupy movement. For some reason, I am having a very hard time posting a link that works, so I'm going to copy and paste - I hope you don't mind. It's not long.

Aimee's recommended ways to be subversive in modern America:

1) Maximize your food independence. For some of us, that means growing a lot of food or raising animals. For others, it means learning how to cook from scratch. If you are buying raw materials from your local farmers at the farmer's market, you maximize support of your individual neighbors and minimize your support of the giant agribusiness companies. You also save money and eat better.

2) Buy secondhand. Everything you possibly can. In this way you avoid encouraging the extraction of raw materials and extend the useful life of products. The embedded energy cost in, say, a new car or a new set of dining room furniture - even a new winter coat! - can be stretched over a greater time period and made to serve a greater number of people. For me, buying secondhand clothing is an ethical decision to avoid supporting the sweatshop industry. A subclause to this recommendation is: repair things that can be repaired. Get your fridge fixed a few times before you get a new one. Learn to mend clothes. When was the last time you saw a kid wearing jeans with knee-patches on them, unless they were sold that way to begin with? Take good care of your car. Do all the scheduled maintenance. Learn to do it yourself! Or ask your neighbor.

3) Maximize your energy independence. There are so many ways to do this - we brew biodiesel for our cars. But you might do it with solar panels or windmills, depending on where you live. Or do it by not owning a car and biking instead. Or by living in a smaller house and super-insulating. The sky's the limit.

4) Know your neighbors. Make friends. Develop mutually beneficial networks. Support each other. Lend your tools. Pool your resources. Why should every small-farming family along the same stretch of road own its own haying equipment, for example? That's absurd. Or its own tractor, even? Why shouldn't three or four families get together to buy one tractor instead of four? Does every household really need a chainsaw? No, not if you are on good terms with Bob down the way. And not if you are willing to lend his wife your sewing machine.

5) Most important of all: take charge of your education! Be informed! Get your information from diverse sources. Use your brain. Teach your kids. Go to museums and libraries while they still exist! Buy books (secondhand, of course!). Do not default on your obligation to educate your children, or yourself. It's too important. You can't leave it to the public school system alone. Talk about important issues with your spouse, your neighbor, your kids, your in-laws, your city councilman, your state senator!

6) For the love of God, VOTE!

TH in SoC said...

Hello Aimee, good to hear from you. How are you and Homero doing? One thing I thought about today is how people in the city can recover the art of frugal living. Some are using rather surprising means to do so.

Aimee said...

Ditto! I always look forward to your posts. We are doing well. The farm is in decent shape, although this "spring" has been so cold and wet, I am tired of mud. Baby goats will be born soon and then I will be milking twice a day> I hope I'm not doing it in the rain. I am glad to hear about the creative ways people find to be resilient in the city. There are some terrific food related resources in many west-coast cities, such as maps of abandoned fruit trees. Seattle has actually planted a "food forest" in one of it's larger parks. On my blog, I have written a lot about the Gleaner's Pantry, which is a small co-op organization that "rescues" about-to-expire food from grocery stores and distributes it to members. You would simply not believe how much totally edible food is thrown away in one small town daily. So much that our ninety families cannot make it all disappear. Every city in america has a waste stream of fresh food sufficient to feed a host. Talk soon! Best wishes.

CZBZ said...

Excellent article, TH. Lots of links for me to browse and you know I appreciate learning new things! I had noticed an effort to get people to spend money (Bush) but didn't make all the connections you've presented in this article. So thanks!

About frugality. Well, you can't grow up on a farm without learning to "make do" and that includes repairing whatever appliance your great-grandma gave you. ha! Even after leaving the farm and climbing the ladder of success with my "ex", we remained frugal-to-the-core. It was a bit of an anomaly in our fancy neighborhood where most people had lawn service, housekeeping services, live-in nannies, etc. etc. and there I was, climbing scaffolding to paint my own rain gutters. The thing is, frugality isn't just about saving money or saving resources--it's about saving your self-worth and grounding your feet to the planet and knowing what matters most. The sense of well-being gained through self-reliance is invaluable. It's so precious that I made sure to share it with my kids. ;-P

I loved Aimee's list so much it inspired a few points of my own:

1) Join families under one roof. This challenges communal skills and nourishes spiritual growth. Save landfills by purchasing one washing machine for four adults. My sister and her son moved in with me and now my adult daughter lives with me. That would be four washing machines (dishwashers, refrigerators, etc.) if we lived apart.

2) Find a church and fill your inner void with something meaningful rather than zombie shopping, what my daughter calls "retail therapy". Each of us has shopped-til-we-dropped and that's why we know how 'empty' it is---like an addiction.

3) Buy second-hand furniture or better yet, learn to build it yourself. Self-esteem grows as carpentry skills increase and there's nothing as wonderful as knowing your nephew almost cut his finger off making a bookcase for your second-hand books.

4) I love cooking from scratch (make my own yogurt and have saved thousands of plastic containers from the landfill). However, I don't judge people who lack the time to cook from is very time-consuming but gives me a sense of purpose now that I'm old. (grin) And nothing brings community together quite like having a good cook in the family.

5) Save all the bones and table scraps for day-long boiled broth but don't tell your guests that you were gnawing on the chicken a few days ago.

I loved writing this, too! Nobody talks about frugality anymore. It used to be a badge-of-honor in my farming community where people would drive their cars until the baby fell through the rusted floor boards. jest kiddin. It's an old joke. In other words: recycled humor.

Is frugality more common in religious communities??? Just wondering--it has always been encouraged in my religion-of-origin and still is, although not as principled as it used to be. Young people aren't enthused about inheriting great-grandma's wringer washer...they like new stuff. We'll see how things change with 45's administration, eh?


TH in SoC said...

Hello CZ,
Thanks very much for your comment! (Did your nephew really almost cut his finger off making a bookcase? Ouch!)

I appreciate the lists that both you and Aimee provided. As far as whether frugality is more common in religious communities, I'd say that it depends. In the case of mainstream American evangelicalism/Protestantism, I'd have to say "No." They have crafted a version of Christianity that is so comfortable that it is no longer any kind of threat to our dominant capitalist, nationalist order. (I am thinking of the megachurch phenomenon and people like Joel Osteen and Dave Ramsey.) Nathaniel Hawthorne accurately described the modern American church in his story, "The Celestial Railroad." (And he died over a hundred and fifty years ago!)

I also suspect strongly that 45 will unwittingly bring about an American society in which frugality becomes much more common, whether people want to be frugal or not, as I think he is about to Make America Poor Again.

CZBZ said...

My nephew seriously wounded himself with a Japanese handsaw. He almost cut the tip of his finger off and had to be rushed to Urgent Care of numerous stitches. Blood was spraying all over the garage. It was terrifying. BUT, he's back in the workshop again, building another set of bookcases for the family room. That's what happens when a person finds a hobby they're passionate about. Even a bloody finger won't stop him from creating.

My religion of origin (you may have figured it out) still preaches frugality, although Times Have Changed. I think those of us who grew up with less money (barely enough for groceries), have an ingrained respect and gratitude for having 'enough'.

I have listened to Joel Osteen and actually enjoyed his sermons (I like to google sermons and listen while I clean the house, ha!). BUT, I already have a deeply spiritual nature so I hear beyond his Celestial Railroad (never heard that before!!) This sense that people are rich because they're in God's favor has infected most churches in American, I think. We have to fight against materialism in a conscious way, otherwise we become robotic consumers living a spiritually empty life with meaningless consumption.

I should also mention that one of my homemade spiritual practices (fifteen years ago) has been a morning list of ten things to be grateful for. I had to remind myself to do this for awhile and then it happened as naturally as brushing my teeth. Now I spontaneously express gratitude to my family for all sorts of things. Blurting out things like, "I am so grateful for this twenty-year old potato peeler!!"

This has "upped" the appreciation level in our home (we've had a rough two years since my sister lost her job). Though unanticipated, expressing gratitude has countered "Give Me More" consumer programming. I hadn't thought about this until writing to you just now, but maybe one of the best ways to achieve a more frugal lifestyle is thankfulness. Being thankful fills you up and when the hole in the soul is satisfied, you really don't need more. (I am speaking about people like myself who have more than we need yet still feel as if something's missing). There's been a recent push for 'gratitude journals' and perhaps this is why. I wonder if all of those beautiful Gratitude Journals have led to a more frugal lifestyle; or have they contributed to the landfill problem? ha!

Aimee said...

CZ - great additions, especially the one about combining households. My dad lived with us for many years, and helped raise his granddaughter. Not only do you save space, appliances, and other resources (heating one house instead of two or three comes to mind), but there is ample evidence that multigenerational households are healthier for all the generations concerned. Old people don't feel lonely and useless, as they can continue to share their knowledge and contribute to the best of their abilities; children benefit from the elders wisdom and love, and from witnessing how we care for each other as we age. Perhaps it is harder on the middle generation, but we also benefit, at least while our parents are still able, from in-home childcare, help with chores, and knowledge and experience. Multi-generational households have always been the norm in most times and places, and I think we lost a great deal when we went to a strictly nuclear family model.

CZBZ said...

I agree with you completely, Aimee! While it was never easy to combine households, people used to do that out of necessity. I'm sure they struggled with conflicts between personalities. It has never been easy being human. Still, people learned to get along in ways we are losing today---each of us our peculiar satellite in our own orbit.

There are many unexpected riches to be gleaned by combining family members under one roof. Because we were kinda "forced" to get along (akin to signing a marriage contract), we tried harder than we might have had we lived in separate households. Thanks for commenting!