We all need money, want money – many of us spend a large portion of our waking hours working for money. 2020 thrust our economic systems under the microscope, highlighting financial inequality that continues to become more gaping in this pandemic. But it wasn’t until reading Eula Biss’ (award-winning author of four books and former Guggenheim Fellow) latest book ‘Having and Being Had’ that I really started to review my relationship to money and capitalism. Alexander Chee (author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel) described this book as “A brilliant, lacerating re-examination of our relationship to what we own and why, and who in turn might own us in ways we didn’t know we consented to – what could be more necessary now?”. It is necessary, confronting, witty, and inspiring, the way Biss delves into the different facets of her relationship with the shiny, complex trappings of capitalism. Here are five of my favourite takeaways from this curious collection of Biss’ musings that I plan to take into this year with me.
1.“Credit is a form of optimism, Yuval Noah Harari suggests. It depends on the belief that the future will be more prosperous than the present.”
Biss writes that if she had “a better eye for class”, she would have realised she “was surrounded by people subsisting on credit, living precariously and passing as middle class. Credit creates the illusion of equality, in that we can all buy the same things on credit, but we can’t all pay the debt back.” Social media won’t show you the size of someone’s upcoming monthly credit card statement, the number of figures in their student loan, the savings they could have put away instead… Items bought with credit (e.g. with credit cards, Afterpay, or Laybuy) don’t reflect true wealth. And credit may indeed be a form of optimism, but can also be a form of optimism that requires you to pawn off your future financial security.
2.“When time is money, as it is now, free time is never free.”
Capitalism is a system that sells the unhealthy idea your self-worth is tied to productivity. It couples time with a monetary value. Since starting work last year, I’ve noticed I now associate a dollar amount with my leisure time (i.e. my hourly rate). Time is expensive, Eula Biss writes. The rich can afford to not be working. “Leisure is how a class that doesn’t have to work displays its status.” Sometimes I’ll pick up extra shifts out of necessity (like when I have to see my dentist). But in my head I always try to uncouple my time and the amount of money that my employer says it’s worth. Being able to spend an hour with my partner is more valuable than the hourly rate printed on my payslips. “At least it’s good money,” a colleague said when they found out I’d picked up a shift at the additional duty rate. “Yeah,” I replied. “But it’s 6.5 hours of my life I’ll never get back.”
3.“Middle age is really all about maintenance, my mother once said… You spend your life accumulating things, she said, and then you have to maintain them.”
I’m the last person that anyone would label a minimalist. However, an aspect of the minimalist lifestyle that really appeals to me is the simplicity of not having to care for your clutter. Looking after material possessions involves both time and money (e.g. clothes that are dry-clean only). So in 2021 I’m aiming to accumulate as few things as possible. And if I do acquire any new objects, I’ll intentionally pick things that are simple to look after.
4.“Perhaps we should all keep a memento of the Titanic, just to remind ourselves of how safe disaster feels.”
According to one survivor, when the Titanic hit the iceberg they didn’t physically feel endangered – “If I had had a brimful glass of water in my hand not a drop would have been spilled”. Yet they were on a sinking ship, an event that would become one of the most well-known tragedies in modern history. For me, this story is a reminder not to let comfort make me complacent, to keep working together on tackling apathy/indifference, and that the best crisis is one that is averted.
5.“Maybe the value of art, to artists and everyone else, is that it upends other value systems. Art unmakes the world made by work.”
You can’t eat art, pay for accommodation with it, or fill your car with it. But 2020 showed us how crucial art is for enriching and defining our lives. It makes the world better – beautiful and bewildering. And we too, in turn, are unmade and made by it.Support Villainesse