ICYMI, #economicviolence


Last Friday, the complicated term #economicviolence began trending on Twitter in the U.S. after Andy Smith, Suey Park, and Prison Culture initiated a tweet chat. People shared personal experiences, and the statistics that represent those stories in aggregate.

Of course, before long, tweets along the lines of “get a job,” and “get a dictionary” began to appear. Accordingly, as my job is to deal with the issues and ideas of economic violence, I want to discuss a few definitions. (And that’s not to say others aren’t already articulating these ideas well. I just hope to add to the chorus.)

Violence is a notoriously difficult thing to define. It seems straightforward at first – we can all immediately picture a fight, a war, murder, or rape.

And yet there is a lot of harm and pain in the world that is seemingly difficult to classify. For example, too many of us are familiar with the way language can be violent, even in the absence of physical contact between two people. Whether property damage is violence is a classic question, especially among activists.

There is also a great deal of clearly preventable injury and death that does not appear to come directly from an individual – the death of a child from hunger or from a disease easily cured in a richer part of the world; the illness suffered by a homeless person in a city full of vacant and foreclosed homes.

Or there is clear violence, but from an amorphous source, such as war waged by The United States. (Who, exactly, is The United States?)

And for all forms of harm – either directly inflicted or of a source more difficult to identify – there are the cultural norms that make us comfortable with its use. We may believe capital punishment or a “just” war are necessary evils, but they are violent nonetheless.

These different kinds of harm are known as direct violence, structural violence, and cultural violence.

Direct violence refers to observable incidences of self-directed, interpersonal, or collective violence, including physical, verbal, or psychological acts and acts that inhibit or insult our basic needs and/or physical persons.

Structural violence refers to the systemic ways in which a given social structure or social institution harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.

And cultural violence is the ways in which aspects of our culture – art, media, political and economic narratives – legitimize the use of direct and structural violence.

Economic violence can be, and is, all three.

On paper, we’ve changed the rules (in the U.S.) so that neither direct nor structural economic violence should remain. Women and Americans of color – responsible for the vast majority of the unpaid and underpaid labor that made the wealth of white men possible over the course of several centuries – are now legally allowed to participate in the economic rule making (via voting) and cannot be officially barred from the spaces of power and privilege (university classes, board rooms, golf courses, etc.). But as groups, we  still work from a structural disadvantage.

Personally, my family’s story looks like the American dream. You could attribute the lack of harm, illness, and injury in my life to my hard work and that of my parents and grandparents. But my race, citizenship, and class privilege have meant I’ve had help: I’ve gotten a loan when I needed it, been given the benefit of the doubt in a court room, been able to take unpaid internships, and have had access to professional networks that I did not build. It is a fact that not all Americans can say the same, and that they do experience harm and hardship in their lives because our culture and social structure do not make these benefits available to all.

In the post-financial crisis economy, the difference between economic privilege and not is homelessness, hunger, imprisonment, illness, and increased exposure to direct violence. Economic privilege affords safety: safe working conditions, safe neighborhoods, cab rides late at night, somewhere to go for help, and the assumption of legitimacy when we need to call on police.

Violence is a complicated element of humanity, and the injury or harm one person experiences may not look like direct violence at the individual level. But when we step back, for a broad view of the structure and the culture, and we see that the same harm is repeatedly inflicted upon individuals from the same groups, it becomes clear that violence is in fact taking place. In part, we find it to be violence because our culture and social structure are our own creation. We make the rules, and we can make them differently.

Predictably, it didn’t take long for the #economicviolence hashtag to fill with anger (and misconceptions) about communism and socialism. I’m partially motivated to present this larger framework around economic violence because I think that responding to a concern about harm inflicted upon people by the current economic system with hyperbole about alternative economic structures really misses the point.

Shortly before Howard Zinn passed away, I was fortunate enough to hear him speak. He shared that, in his experience, when the average person is asked if everyone should have access to health care and education, they say yes. When asked if the poor should be provided with homes or if corporations should be given the opportunity to build high rises and earn more profits, people say that the poor should be given homes. He gave several examples and concluded by noting that we may call these things socialism, but by and large, when asked about the realities without the vocabulary, this economy that provides for all is the one we want to live in.

I am not aware of anyone in the United States advocating for a USSR-style centrally planned economy – that the government should tell us how many shoes and light bulbs and toilets will be produced and when and where and by whom. Where the market works, we’re happy to work it. But the economy is our own creation, and if we seek to create it in a nonviolent way that reduces harms and supports the health and happiness of our neighbors, that isn’t something to argue about. That’s something to build together.


The Other Side of The Coin


“extreme wealth and income is not only unethical it is also economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive.”

This is Oxfam‘s scathing review of the modern wealth gap, not mine. (Although I wish I’d written it…) The international organization out to end poverty and injustice has put what seems intuitive to most of us in no uncertain terms. And what’s more, they’ve provided the research and the branding to back it up.

In their latest media brief, discussed here on Al Jazeera and linked above, the Oxfam press room implores the world to set goals for tackling both extreme poverty and extreme wealth.

We’ve been working on ending poverty for a long time. Oft forgotten, it’s the motivation that brought Adam Smith to the Wealth of Nations in 1776 and gave us the simple but world-changing principals for the end of mercantilism and the beginning of economic freedom. But the world’s powerful quickly noted that the whole effort could be extremely profitable. The international development industry we know today was largely born of cold war diplomacy, and we know which economic structure won there…  We’ve tried many different strategies since then, from Live Aid, to Dead Aid, to the MDGs. But the countries we (the Global North) profess to aid are by and large trapped in the same poverty and conflicts of the last half century.

So perhaps Oxfam is on to something with a completely new idea. The first step in change is envisioning it, and the second step is communicating it. Taking the lead from a fun mix of bedfellows – The Economist, The IMF, and Occupy – Oxfam is pointing the spotlight on the other end of the spectrum. We’ve spent over 200 years talking about the problem of poverty, but it may now finally be time to talk about the problem of wealth.

To speak of inequality is no longer revolutionary (although those of us that do are often treated like rebels). But I must say I’ve been surprised on the subject in two big ways (relatively) recently. First, I was shocked when a protest of inequality in America, of all places, managed to occupy Manhattan’s financial district for more than about five minutes. Second, I was surprised to find the headline “Funnel down, don’t trickle down,” on a blog at the Wall Street Journal. (Could the paradigm shift be real?)

In truth, conversations about ending poverty have been less about aid recently and more about social enterprises, micro-loans, and building markets. These bottom-up solutions are likely to be the most empowering and sustainable. But are they hindered by extreme wealth? Is the top-heavy economy holding us all back? And if so, what are we to do when he who has the gold makes the rules?

Some Thoughts on “The Market”


Posts have been few and far between lately because I’m writing my masters thesis. It is all-consuming. But as I work, not everything that I write down can go in the final paper. Like this bit of editorializing… So I thought I would share it here. Your thoughts?

Market Failures and Externalities, Civil Society, and the State

To speak of market failures and externalities is to speak from an incorrect premise on the nature of ‘the market.’ This premise, which assumes that ‘the market’ will always lead to the best social outcome, denies the human element in this decentralized system. Perhaps because it is decentralized, and in theory not directed by any one corruptible or fallible individual (or small group), we do not see it as susceptible to the same human qualities that we control for in government or even in corporate management. However, the market in actuality is the sum of our economic activity. We, humans, are the market. Continue reading

Legality and justice: Hate speech, property defacement, or freedom of expression?


So, this controversial video is going around the internet, in which a woman is arrested for spraying pink paint over an NYC subway ad that reads “In a war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

While Mona is spraying the ad, another woman, Pamela, attempts to physically prevent her from painting over it and at one point uses her camera equipment to try and shove her away from the ad.

I originally read of the incident on Political Fail Blog, via a Facebook post. Today, I read over a long Facebook comment thread between my classmates that inspired me to write about the incident. A lot came up in this thread, but I’d like to explore an issue that I think of often: does legality equal justice? How about legitimacy? This ad was legally sanctioned by a NYC judge; defacing a subway ad is illegal. But many people find the ad offensive, and onlookers as well as internet commentators applaud Mona’s action. So who’s right, and what does the whole incident mean for social justice?

Two Facebook posters noted that breaking the law, and doing so with graffiti, are historically accepted and even successful means of activism. Mona contends that her action is “freedom of expression, just as [the ad] is freedom of expression.” But nonetheless, one is legal and the other isn’t. I contend that legality is as fallible as the humans who created it, and therefore does not automatically equal justice or legitimacy. Now, in the interest of a peaceful and orderly coexistence, I am not suggesting we all treat the entire governing structure as illegitimate whenever we don’t like it and just do whatever the hell we please. But I will assert that it is our responsibility as citizens to think critically about the law, to discuss when it does and does not appropriately protect our freedoms, and, when we determine it is unjust, to use our full range of means to have it changed. In this case, our freedom to express religious and cultural opinions is juxtaposed with our desire to live free from hate speech. Mona implied they were both rights, and exercised her right to the later.

When legality sides with injustice there are a number of historically accepted and successful tactics available to activists, including the similar but distinct civil disobedience, noncooperation, and nonviolent direct action (NVDA).

Civil disobedience involves directly breaking a law that the activists finds to be unjust. Ex: Entering a public space, such as a school, that your are legally excluded from based on your race, gender, sexual identity, etc.

Noncooperation involves not cooperating with a law or norm in order to draw attention to a cause and/or express opposition to injustice. Ex: Staging a sit-in that disrupts normal activity. While a demonstration may be illegal, it is often directed at a different legal or normal injustice, such as marriage inequality.

NVDA includes a wide range of tactics that are often noncooperative and civilly disobedient, and also intended to put direct pressure on actors who uphold unjust laws or norms. Ex: Blocking the entrance to the NY Stock Exchange to prevent the ringing of the opening bell. While possibly illegal and definitely noncooperative, this action also directly disrupts and pressures actors at the major corporations on Wall Street to change their actions or experience further disruptions.

I would label this NVDA, in that Mona was taking direct action against a practice she finds unjust. It could also be said that she was engaging in civil disobedience by breaking a law she felt is unjust: the law that says one can buy hate speech in the NYC subway for $6k. (Also at issue: $ = speech?) And for those who have said that, no matter how offensive the ad, she shouldn’t have defaced it: that’s the point. Mona, like many activists before her, refused to cooperate with the social norm and the legality that says this hate speech is acceptable while her pink spray paint is not. All of these tactics are indeed accepted and historically successful means for bringing about social change. In fact, statistically, nonviolent tactics are twice as successful. (An interesting discussion is whether or not property defacement constitutes violence, especially public property.) What’s my point here? If Pam can rightfully buy that add for $6k why can’t Mona rightfully spray paint over it?

Visionistas: Building Peaceful Economies in the Americas

ojuelos de jalisco mexico

Visionistas is dedicated to building peaceful economies in the Americas by identifying what economic structures and business models build peace and working to implement them.

Visionistas is the organization I’m working to build, and the above is our mission statement. As I embark on the first Visionistas research project this summer and fall – my masters thesis, on economic opportunity in México – I want to introduce the organization this work will serve to create.

Continue reading

Talk Back to NYC Subway Ads


I just sent the following email to Adbusters. I’m hoping that they’re print it in the next issue and blast my idea, but in case they don’t, I’ll post it here too.

Dear Adbusters team,

I ride the New York City subway every day and I can’t help but feel assaulted by the advertising. I often think of responses to the ads. There’s a New York Lottery ad that personifies Luck as a gaggle of white men in suits with over-sized heads and slogans like “Hold your applause.” I stuck a label on the ad that said “Luck is not a white man with a big head.” But will my own personal culture jam have an impact? Can you help me scale it up? NYC needs more stickers – like, “This ad perpetuates gender stereotypes,” and “This kind of wealth requires the poverty of others,” – and more people to stick them. Can you share the idea? We can no longer be passive consumers of propaganda. It’s time to talk back.

I shared this idea with friends not long ago, and people seemed into it. So I started it today with my sticker on those lottery ads. (They drive me nuts… ) Won’t you join me? We pay more for that subway system than the advertisers do, with our taxes and fares. So I think it’s only right that if we have to listen to those guys on Madison Avenue all day long, 3500 times a day, they should listen to us too. Grab a name tag, a folder label, a post-it note, or a flyer with a blank side and some scotch tape, and tell them what you think of their heteronormative, sexist, racist, classist bullshit.

Occupy your public space. Add your voice. Talk back.

And send me pictures.




*This post has been edited since its original draft because I realized that I used a brand name as if it were just an adjective. That’s how intense the programming is. But it’s clear tape, soda, tissues, and a copy machine. Those other words are tools of wealth appropriation. That’s why they get a nickel every time you say it, not you.