Re: Cohousing and Economies
From: Howard Landman (howardpoly.polyamory.org)
Date: Mon, 10 Jan 2000 12:01:34 -0700 (MST)
> All of our wealth and privlege rests on the backs of the poor.

While there are certainly many specific cases where poor people are
exploited, as a universal declaration this is simply not true.  It would
be at least as true to say that most of the improvements in the standard
of living of the poor are due to the inventiveness of the non-poor.

Just to give one example, 100+ years ago all lighting was from flame,
usually candles or oil lanterns, although (flammable) kerosene and
(explosive!) acetylene were also used.  The cost of this could be a quite
significant portion of a poor family's budget.  In addition, it was
relatively unsafe - much death and destruction was due to fires started
by light sources.

With the invention of the light bulb and electrical transmission,
everyone, rich and poor alike, had a new option that was safer and
(eventually) much cheaper.  Edison once boasted that he'd make electric
lighting so cheap that "only the rich will be able to afford candles".

Now, if you want, you can interpret the success of Edison Electric
(and rival Westinghouse inspired by Tesla) as being "on the backs of"
the people who voluntarily and quite sensibly chose to take advantage
of their products.  But this doesn't seem, to me, to be a particularly
useful way of interpreting reality.  It feels more like the old adage
of "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail".

And in fact, the trends in automation in the latter part of the 20th
century were opposed by labor unions for precisely the opposite reason -
because they rendered large amounts of manual labor unnecessary, and
allowed people with capital to make more wealth without involving many
blue collar workers at all.  The unionists apparently preferred having
shareholders make money "on their backs" in the same old way to being
forced to learn new skills or not having jobs at all.

Cohousing itself is just one more example of a concept which was originally
developed to meet the needs of upper middle class people and is now being
adapted for lower income ranges.

> I believe the injustice issue is here to stay with us.  It is systemic
> to civilization itself.

It would be nice if we could all agree on what justice was before talking
about injustice.  But that seems rather difficult, since the idea of
justice is based on people's dreams of what "should" be, but different people
have different dreams, some of them irrational or even self-contradictory.
(People have different dreams of what cohousing "should be" too.)

But if we replace "the injustice issue" with "poverty" - still a somewhat
vague term but at least based on simple observation without judgement -
then we get something that might be a universal truth.  Poverty has been
with us since the earliest civilizations.  This persistence is remarkable,
and anyone hoping to "eradicate poverty" needs to think about it carefully.
As Rilke wrote:

        Somewhere the gold lives in a bank, pampered,
        the confidante of thousands.  Yet any
        blindman, a beggar, is to a copper penny
        like a lost place, a dusty nook under the hamper.
        
        Money seems right at home in the stores,
        thinly disguised in silk, flowers and furs.
        He, silent, stands in the pause between breathing
        of all of the money that's awake or sleeping.

        Oh how can it close at night, this always open hand?
        In the morning fate grabs it again, and each day
        holds it out: pale, wretched, ever destructible.

        If only one who saw, amazed, would finally understand
        and laud its long survival.  Only a singer might say.
        Only to a god would it be audible.

(R. M. Rilke, "The Sonnets To Orpheus" II, 19 - my translation.  Full text
available at http://www.polyamory.org/~howard/Poetry/rilke_orpheusII19.html)

        Howard A. Landman

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