voluntary poverty

Anti-Consumerism & Voluntary Poverty

‘Mutual Aid’ as both concept and practice was reignited under the conditions of the pandemic that called for collective approaches for survival. However, as the years have continued, mutual aid has been redefined continuously and is now synonymous with ‘charity’ (which is not a bad thing, but is quite different). Crowdfunding links are flooding the internet by the hundreds, but as time continues, pushing more people into the margins and squeezing them financially, that method seems to be increasingly becoming less and less effective. And for whatever reason requests for funds are made, the fact that it is overwhelming, continuous and not actually controlled by us (as these apps take a cut of whatever is raised) does raise some important things to consider. 

The lack of sustainable options have forced “helplessness” on poor working class communities. Yet even with some understanding of the material conditions, people are reluctant to ask for help because of stigma. People do not want to feel like beggars or be read as “poor”. This, of course, speaks to something larger than the crowdfunding and monetary requests, itself. For instance, If one were to make a request for financial help online because they are jobless, need food, need to pay a bill, and are able to raise the money needed, the conditions themselves haven’t changed. It is a quick fix but it is not a solution. It inevitably places people in a perpetual state of need. What is being danced around, as mutual aid settles more and more into its liberal distortion, and crowdsourcing requests continue to grow (due to the failing economic and health policies of this administration and congress actively denying a recession), is the dire necessity for sustainable institutions and building towards that.

Alongside the offerings from Dr. Charisse Burden Stelly’s expansions on the Theory of Mutual Comradeship, I have been thinking through the Black Liberation Army’s concept of Voluntary Poverty. In The Black Liberation Army Study Guide, they suggest 

“The system depends upon a rapid turnover in commodities and consumer goods. They build automobiles, and like Items designed to come apart within a specific number of years, it bombards the public psyche with commercials, and parades “middle class affluence” all to promote and develop artificial needs in the people. It changes style rapidly in everything from cars and clothes, to furniture and appliances; inducing people to buy long long before the goods they own have lost their utility. It promotes a “keep-up-with-the-jones’,” “rat-race” mentality, with the reward of status for those who keep up and the punishment of ridicule and lost of fact for those who fall behind.” [p. 15]

As the U.S is facing a plethora of crises (from economic to housing to healthcare to education) there is heavily-laddled promotion of “luxury” and consumerism pushed out by influencer networks across social and mainstream media. Everything from “girl boss” to “soft life” to “get the bag” has been reiterated and encouraged through exploitative messaging digging deeper into capitalism in spite of it being the very reason for the crises people are up against. Whether it be elusive positive messaging about Black businesses encouraging folks to buy things they don’t necessarily need simply because the seller is Black or bitcoin convincing folks that investment is the difference between being rich and poor, Africans in the US are practically discouraged against their better interests, deterred from building socialism. 

In addition, much of the rejection of mutual comradeship and the lack of consideration of building sustainable institutions (large and small scale) seemingly derives from an outright rejection and objection to being poor. Poverty is taken on as a single issue and thus made to be seen as an individual failing. Poverty is also taken on as a personal indictment. Happiness is made synonymous with consumerism. As the contradictions sharpen, people are actively being discouraged from approaching these systemic issues that have burdened us all, collectively.

The BLA understood this clearly when they said,

“The cynic reads what we propose here and doubtless will say its against “human nature.” When what he will most nearly mean is that it is against animal nature; and what he will actually he doing is considering us as niggers rather than black men/women. For what we propose here is a human nature at its highest. Certainly there will be suffering, certainly there will be confusion, chaos, even death; for after all this is war. A just, uncompromising, nation-building peoples war.”[pg 15]

When socialism is discussed in organizing groups, there is an emphasis on grasping at the root. In the Marxian sense, to be dialectical is to analyze the development of a thing. This means understanding how it has come to be, materially. The BLA details the necessity of voluntary poverty not as an appeal to one’s consciousness but as the first steps necessary in creating a disciplined masses primed and ready to engage in revolution by shedding consumerism.

To take on Voluntary poverty in the face of capitalism is to re-educate a people. Is to reorient them to more humane values; values not tied to the capitalist project. Is to show compassion to those in need and the spirit of revolutionary love, not anchored by idealism, but as the steps towards what is necessary to build and sustain a whole people. Undoubtedly, we have much work to do. But fortunately, we have a blueprint provided by those who loved us enough to know as a colonized people at war, we are flawed but we are not doomed.

“It is our task to create an atmosphere where a person need not have a dime in order to participate in society as a human being. An atmosphere where a person need not feel ashamed of his/her lack, nor feel she/he is offending his/her peers by not keeping up with the jones’; a society where there is no status associated with gaudy dress and shiny gadgets. Such psychology should be reversed and the more stitches on one’s clothes should be held in the highest esteem. People must be liberated from their lust for material goods.

This is not to say, however, that a person should seek to live bare austere lives, but rather, with all the knowledge and skill at the fingertips of modern society, and all the technology and gadgets already in existence, it would appear that an individual can make with her/his own hands, from pieces of scraps if necessary, just about any luxury item one desires. Nor should any material thing be so valued that a person cannot simply give it away—without a qualm.

For there must be a sharing on a vast scale, a sharing, not only of material things, but of knowledge, skills, and time itself. Christmas, for example, if It must be celebrated it should be done in such a way so as not to promote the aggrandizement of the exploiter.

Voluntary poverty immediately relieves tremendous pressure off the ghettos, where the youngbloods, seeking to compensate their lack with a crow-bar and a pistol, incur a ceaseless war with the police and upon their neighbors. We must create a new spiritual world in the Black colonies in which people may have fulfilling and rewarding relationships, and develop their human potentials without money being the overriding factor.”[pg 15-16]

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Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.