The Gifting Society

9 May

“The idea of a productive protest is happening and I believe it is the start of a new paradigm in collective action.  The urban gardening and guerrilla gardening movements are some more obvious examples of this new trend.  It seems difficult for many to see the political nature of gardening, but for the people involved in these approaches, it is a gesture to raise awareness of what a piece of industrial waste ground should be.  Choosing to plant life and feed people in a neglected area is a way of publicly and productively making an opinion heard in an attempt to influence public opinion or government policy.  It is also a community attempting to directly enact desired change themselves.  This is protest.” — Robyn Waxman, “Rethinking Protest: A Designer’s Role in the Next Generation of Collective Action,” FARM, 2011, page 30

On April 13th, a young woman held up a copy of this publication from The Future Action Reclamation Mob (F.A.R.M.) during an evening of song and spoken word at the reception for The Green Arcade bookstore’s art exhibition, A Night of Surreal Superstition.  She explained to the audience the project’s overall aims bringing together students of California College of the Arts San Francisco and the homeless of the vicinity.    Her call was an invitation for others to join in this act of revolution.  Not only does the farm aim to produce crops for anyone in need of food, but it does so by participating outside of a capitalist system of commodity and exchange.  Thus, gifting becomes the exchange medium wherein the individuals of the community involved carry equal status.

Certainly during earlier depressions, in an unending recurrence of depressions which constitute the life of capitalism, jobless and starving American citizens have sought the means to produce and consume outside the capitalist system.  The Hoovervilles of 1931, so-called because of President Herbert Hoover’s continued denials that an economic depression would last, involved people who had become homeless building structures from discarded materials.  The aggregate structures were shanty towns where homes tended to be built in rows and the pathways between took on the form of streets with given names.  The inhabitants were people who had become jobless.  A large self-help movement developed in California where, at various times, 500,000 families were affiliated.  By the end of 1932, thirty-seven states followed the example set by California.  In Seattle during the summer months of 1931, an organization called the Unemployed Citizens League (UCL) began organizing a self-help movement that centered around mutual aid.  Its membership rose to 80,000 in 1933 as it spread through the state of Washington.  The UCL negotiated with the fishermen’s union to lend boats for fishing.  Farmers were persuaded to allow UCL members to harvest fruit and potatoes that would not go to market, borrowing trucks to transport the food.  Bartering became widespread and highly organized.  By the winter of 1931, it was apparent that mutual aid would not be enough for the needs of the jobless  (Franklin Folsom, Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808-1942, pages 277-81).

Whether or not today’s economic crisis has initiated current experiments in collective action based on alternative economies, the fact that a growing number of people seek non-capitalist solutions for the exchange of goods and services is notable.  Bay Area Community Exchange (BACE) (http://timebank.sfbace.org/) offers a system of time exchange in which one member may “buy” an hour’s time from another member, receiving a particular service, giving the service provider an hour that can be used elsewhere.  This system values everyone’s hours equally, eliminates the use of paper and coin currency, and builds relationships between participating members.  “…This is a system for people who are undervalued in [the] traditional marketplace,” according to co-founder Mira Luna.  One off-shoot of the BACE model is the effort by People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER) SF to serve residents of the Mission and the Excelsior with a similar program.  Where BACE has perfected digital and Web-based mechanisms to enhance operation, PODER prefers community gatherings where people meet face-to-face (see Yael Chanoff, “Bank Your Time,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 2-8, 2012, page 9).

Around the time I read Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (2009), a humorous and endearing narrative of a guerrilla farmer cropping on a vacant lot in an economically depressed neighborhood of Oakland (Carpenter maintains a blog at http://ghosttownfarm.wordpress.com/), I became involved as a volunteer at Hayes Valley Farm.  Located on 2 1/4 acres where a set of freeway ramps once absorbed toxic waste from heavy traffic, the Farm was begun by a group of visionary permaculture enthusiasts who contracted from the City of San Francisco at no cost for 3 1/2 years.  I could no longer afford the cost of courses at City College of San Francisco’s Environmental Horticulture department, an excellent Associate of Arts degree program where graduates are guaranteed employment in the field.  Volunteering at the Farm, the roof garden of California Academy of Sciences (a native flora laboratory), and Bay Native Nursery, run by Geoffrey Coffey and Paul Furman, provided an excellent alternative education.  Hayes Valley Farm operates upon the principle of regenerative farming.  In this case, soil is built rather than shipped in; urban gardeners do not consider the fact that when they buy soil they are robbing another environment of its most precious commodity.  We started with recycled cardboard.  Upon that we dumped and mixed donated waste chipping from regional horticultural activity and donated horse manure from a San Francisco stable.  The next stage involved planting the nitrogen-fixing plants fava bean and clover.  Once the fava bean was harvested and its stems and leaves returned to the ground, other crops were planted.  Marigold was used as a natural pest repellant.

Life has not been as kind as I would like it to be, so I could not continue indefinitely with the Farm because of a changing employment situation.  But the time I did spend there was invaluable.  Anyone was welcome to join in the creation of the farm.  The food that was harvested was shared amongst volunteers and given to people in need.  Since that first year the Farm has built a greenhouse, compost pits, sheds, a stone and cob community meeting area, and conducted classes on permaculture and bee keeping in a straw bale seating area (http://www.hayesvalleyfarm.com/).

The land will revert to the city.  The city will then turn it over to commercial development.  There is sadness in endings, especially in a case like this, where an idyllic but achievable dream will be replaced by housing units for the more affluent.  I was speaking to an acquaintance named Kevin about the Farm recently.  Committed to the redistribution of wealth, his imagination of late has been fueled by theoretical acts of taking.  He condemned the organizers of the Farm for not resisting the impending commercial take over.  He also dismissed these same individuals for being from a social strata of the privileged (he had concluded this after working for one month only at the Farm).  We had a heated discussion about it; I could not agree and we are both passionate debaters.  I happened to tell Todd, a work colleague at a temporary job site, about the argument.  Todd is the conservative type.  He loves statements like, Name a Communist country that hasn’t failed!  (His father served as a public relations man, not a soldier, in Vietnam during the late 60s, so I can guess his indoctrination to authoritarian views began early in life.*)  Todd was impressed that I had a “conservative” side myself.  But I corrected him to an extent stating my belief that any conservatively minded person would simply laugh at a project like Hayes Valley Farm, where everyone is on equal footing and the fruits of this collective labor is equally shared.  After all, the conservatives of this country love the capitalist system for its sheer competitiveness and some-people-will-win-over-most-others rewards.

The Hooper Street garden siding California College of the Arts was also begun in 2009.  Like Hayes Valley Farm, the ground was toxic, in this case from what was once a Greyhound facility.  Waxman’s husband terms the project a “Slow Protest” (“Rethinking Protest,” 34) because FARM is remediating an environment that took decades to form.  Waxman set out to determine how the youngest generation, the so-called Millennial Generation, would respond to such a project as a form of protest; she observes the California College of Arts participants’ background as part of “a generation who has lived a fairly comfortable life…young, educated, upper/middle-class students, who perceive no obvious change in their civil rights” (ibid).  Looking at generational use of forms of protest is one of the  more interesting aspects of Waxman’s essay.  Like Mark Bauerlein, whom Waxman quotes — “…we’re about to turn our country over to a generation that doesn’t read much and doesn’t think much either” (“Rethinking Protest,” 12) — I have not put faith in this newest generation’s ability to challenge the world, because of my perception that they are additionally apathetic and self-absorbed with the consumption of social media and gadgetry.  Waxman finds positive attributes: a preference for group-oriented activities, participation as opposed to spectatorship, and a desire for experience as authentic.  Waxman believes that Millennials “could be strong participants in collective political action and social movements” (13).

It is the form of protest that must be addressed in terms of effectiveness.  With the Hooper Street project in focus: “[g]rowing a farm is a prolonged engagement through time, not a one-hour vigil at the trolly car turn-around on Market Street.  While both activities merit credit, building a farm is arguably more sustainable, more productive, and more engaging” (“Rethinking Protest,” 35).  Folsom cites historian Clark Kerr’s finding of California’s self-help organizations or “productive enterprises”  in 1932 (Folsom, 278).  And I do believe it will be the necessary enterprise of collective hard work and example that will lead us to a desired state of justice for the environment and the social world.  Capitalism is a dead-end in terms of the betterment of this world.

* Because I did not want to open discourse on nation states and political ideologies while at the job site, I did not engage Todd in clarifying how communist states had all failed.  But the implication is that anywhere communism is attempted it does fail.  Perhaps he meant that today’s communist states have integrated some form of capitalism into their structure.  If that were true, then I would have to say the reverse is equally true: all capitalist states have failed.  After all, our own country has integrated progressive forms of socialism in order to ensure health and well-being for some of its inhabitants.  And corporations are unable to profit, as obscene as those profits may be, without forms of governmental assistance and subsidy.  A pure state of economics exists only on paper.  The relationship between corporations and government over citizens and their government are as true today as they were at the opening of the Great Depression.  Observations about Hoover’s expulsion of the Bonus Marchers from Washington, D.C. in 1932 still resonate with meaning.  The approximately 20,000 World War I veterans had marched on the Capitol to demand payment for a promised and Congressionally legislated supplement to their $1-per-day service during the Great War.  Congressman C. Wright Patman reminisced about the expulsion to Studs Terkel: “Who were the so-called bonus marchers?  They were lobbyists for a cause.  Just like the ones in the Mayflower Hotel.  They didn’t try to evict them (italics in place).  Why the poor come to town, and they’re put in jail for stepping on the grass.  The Mayflower crowd, they don’t have any problem at all.  They’re on every floor of every building of the Capitol Hill all the time.”  Heywood Broun also wrote of the expulsion, contrasting the reception of business lobbyists and their success in garnering massive aid to banks and businesses by Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the use of tear gas against the veterans: “For the banks of America Mr. Hoover has prescribed oxygen.  For the unemployed, chlorine.” (Both quotations appear in Folsom, page 321.)

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