Anthony Clark talks on March 13, 2021 about the importance of the community fridge outside of Carnival Grocery in Oak Park. As Wednesday Journal reported earlier this year, “the ‘love fridge’ is designed to operate as a mutual aid system where members of the community work together to support the needs of people living in the community. The public refrigerator [...] available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” The fridge is stocked and maintained by volunteers. | Paul Goyette/Contributor

This week, while reporting on Connie Moreland’s Facebook group, “Free To Good Home,” I was struck by her personal motto.

“Everything we need, we already have,” she said.

The Facebook group allows members to give and take things (clothes, furniture, toys, trinkets, etc.) at absolutely no charge.

The group’s ground rules are radically simple: Be kind and courteous, no bullying or hate speech, and no buying and selling. The rules comprise an ethic that is badly needed in our current consumptive society. 

“The world is too much with us,” wrote the Romantic poet William Wordsworth in the early 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution was heating up in Europe. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; — Little we see in Nature that is ours.”

If that observation was acute then, it’s beyond cliche in our present age of Apple, Google, Netflix, Amazon and Facebook.

A few hundred years after the start of the Industrial Revolution, we are now living in a digital revolution that’s powered by data. We haven’t moved beyond our dependence on fossil fuels, we’ve just discovered a new non-renewable resource to mine for profit: ourselves.

The philosopher Shoshana Zuboff describes our current moment of surveillance capitalism, which “claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.

“Although some of these data are applied to produce or service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence,’ and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later,” Zuboff writes.

This translates into that advertisement for Nike running shoes that mysteriously follows you around the web. Thinking about traveling? Where? Google already knows and is more than happy to deliver to you the answer that its algorithm has already predicted you’ll stumble on.

During your travels, you may notice aspects of what New York Times reporter Nelson D. Schwartz calls the Velvet Rope Economy. First-class flights. Luxury vehicles. Separate VIP sections on the cruise ship.

This isn’t your great-grandparents’ “conspicuous consumption,” Schwartz writes. What’s new is “how the manipulation of envy and status is being used to sell services, a much bigger market that includes everything from air travel and cruises to financial advice and entertainment.

“And sometimes it’s not the service being sold that brings envy into play — it’s how these services are delivered, whether that means a faster check-in line that’s side by side with the slow lane at the airport or being called by name to board before everyone else.”

Feeling lonely? There’s an app for that.

“It’s a sign of our times that today I can order companionship as easily as I can a cheeseburger with just a few taps on my phone, that what I call  a Loneliness Economy has emerged to support — and in some cases exploit — those who feel alone,” writes economist Noreena Hertz.

“Even before the coronavirus triggered a ‘social recession’ with its toxification of face-to-face contact, three in five U.S. adults considered themselves lonely,” she writes. “All over the world people are feeling lonely, disconnected, and alienated. We are in the midst of a global loneliness crisis. None of us, anywhere, is immune.”

What’s more, the key elements of the Velvet Rope Economy that Schwartz describes and the Loneliness Economy that Hertz writes about are mutually reinforcing.

As the world becomes increasingly unequal, the lived social infrastructure becomes even more cruel and closed off to the have-nots, driving us further apart and exacerbating our collective loneliness.

For instance, Hertz observes elements of “hostile architecture” in cities across the world — from separate entrances in apartment buildings for VIP residents to “metal grates on the pavement outside shops from which spikes emerge at night” (the latter is supposed to be a deterrent against those experiencing homelessness, as if human beings without means are akin to pesky bugs).

This hostile infrastructure, Hertz writes, “has its roots in the ‘broken windows’ policing of the 1980s, when everyday activities such as standing, waiting, sleeping (especially when ‘committed’ by people of color) began to be criminalized as ‘disorderly’ and ‘antisocial’.”

It’s worth noting that the 1980s is when the wealth and income divide we’re living with today gained its greatest momentum. Right now, the wind is at the backs of the rich.  

“If our society had $2 to share between the richest 0.1 percent and the bottom 90 percent, it would give $1 to the guy in the private jet and the other $1 to the other 900, or about enough to fill 20 city buses,” writes the historian Matthew Stewart. “Back in the 1960s, by contrast, the people on the buses shared $4 for every $1 among the sky people.

“In between the 0.1 percent and the 90 percent, there is a collection of percentiles that has held on to its share of the growing economy,” Stewart explains. “It has pulled away from the 90 percent, even as it has fallen far behind the 0.1 percent. Taken on the whole, the 9.9 percent is the richest segment of the distribution and controls more than half of the personal wealth in the nation.”

In other words, over time this country has cannibalized its citizenry and the cannibalization is accelerating every year, with more and more people falling out of the middle class as more and more billions accrue to fewer and fewer people at the top. And with the increasing stratification comes yet more brutality that is become harder and harder to conceal behind elegant facades.

The irony is that this country and many parts of the world have never been wealthier. The late philosopher Ivan Illich described this paradox back in the 1970s with the term modernized poverty, which “appears when the intensity of market dependence reaches a certain threshold.

“Subjectively, it is the experience of frustrating affluence which occurs in persons mutilated by their overwhelming reliance on the riches of industrial productivity,” Illich wrote. “Simply, it deprives those affected by it of their freedom and power to act autonomously, to live creatively; it confines them to survival through being plugged into market relations.”

I believe more and more people are starting to sense what Illich articulated decades ago. This impulse to “check out” of our impoverishing dependence on market relations is what drives Facebook groups like Moreland’s “Free To Good Home.”

And there are other autonomous, community-building projects and initiatives that have been spreading across Oak Park and the surrounding suburbs — from Anthony Clark’s and Suburban Unity Alliance’s Community Fridge to Little Free Library installations to Oak Park Mutual Aid.

These projects are radically simple and they’re premised on meeting people’s physical, social and emotional needs, rather than servicing their desires or manufacturing envy.

For the most part, they aren’t means tested. They don’t require anyone to prove their worth as a condition for satisfying a basic need (i.e., you don’t have to fill out an application of eligibility to reach into the Community Fridge and get food). This kind of means testing only feeds into the social stratification that is tearing us apart from each other.

Critically, they also occur in the physical world, not exclusively online. As Moreland told me, she has a vision to see her group grow beyond Facebook (where it’s subject to the platform’s surveillance). That’s why she hosted a free flea market in Rehm Park last month. She understands the importance of old-fashioned face-to-face connection.

These projects are some of the most powerful antidotes to the cruelty and brutality that runaway inequality only exacerbates. They engender empathy and fairness and kindness and joy. They are, in the words of Illich, convivial.

The next step is to transform this localized convivial energy into something more large-scale, systematic and sustained. As Illich writes:

“New, convivial politics are based on the insight that in a modern society, both wealth and jobs can be equitably shared and enjoyed in liberty only when both are limited by a political process.”

Convivial politics. I like it. Let’s make the practice go viral.

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