This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
After the Macondo well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, it was easy enough (on your choice of screen) to see a flaming oil platform, the very sea itself set afire with huge plumes of black smoke rising, and the dark smear of what would become five million barrels of oil beginning to soak birds and beaches. Infinitely harder to see and less dramatic was the vast counterforce soon at work: the mobilizing of tens of thousands of volunteers, including passionate locals from fishermen in the Louisiana Oystermen’s Association to an outraged tattoo-artist-turned-organizer, from visiting scientists, activist groups and Catholic Charities reaching out to Vietnamese fishing families to the journalist and oil-policy expert Antonia Juhasz, and Rosina Philippe of the Atakapa-Ishak tribe in Grand Bayou. And don’t forget the ceaseless toil of the Sierra Club’s local environmental justice organizer, the Gulf Coast Restoration Network, the New Orleans-born poet-turned-investigator Abe Louise Young and so many more than I can list here.
I think of one ornithologist I met in Grand Bayou who had been dispatched to the Gulf by an organization, but had decided to stay on even if his funding ran out. This mild-mannered man with a giant pair of binoculars seemed to have some form of pneumonia, possibly induced by oil-fume inhalation, but that didn’t stop him. He was among the thousands whose purpose in the Gulf had nothing to do with profit, unless you’re talking about profiting the planet.
The force he represented mattered there, as it does everywhere—a force that has become ever more visible to me as I live and journey among those who dedicate themselves to their ideals and act on their solidarities. Only now, though, am I really beginning to understand the full scope of its power.
Long ago, Adam Smith wrote about the “invisible hand” of the free market, a phrase which always brings to my mind horror movies and Gothic novels in which detached and phantasmagorical limbs go about their work crawling and clawing away. The idea was that the economy would somehow self-regulate and so didn’t need to be interfered with further—or so still go the justifications for capitalism, even though it took an enormous armature of government interventions to create the current mix of wealth and poverty in our world. Your tax dollars pay for wars that make the world safe for giant oil corporations, and those corporations hand over huge sums of money to their favorite politicians (and they have so many favorites!) to regulate the political system to continue to protect, reward and enrich themselves. But you know that story well.
As 2010 ends, what really interests me aren’t the corrosions and failures of this system, but the way another system, another invisible hand, is always at work in what you could think of as the great, ongoing, Manichean arm-wrestling match that keeps our planet spinning. The invisible claw of the market may fail to comprehend how powerful the other hand—the one that gives rather than takes—is, but neither does that open hand know itself or its own power. It should. We all should.
The Iceberg Economy
Who wouldn’t agree that our society is capitalistic, based on competition and selfishness? As it happens, however, huge areas of our lives are also based on gift economies, barter, mutual aid, and giving without hope of return (principles that have little or nothing to do with competition, selfishness, or scarcity economics). Think of the relations between friends, between family members, the activities of volunteers or those who have chosen their vocation on principle rather than for profit.
Think of the acts of those—from daycare worker to nursing home aide or the editor of TomDispatch.com—who do more, and do it more passionately, than they are paid to do; think of the armies of the unpaid who are at “work” counterbalancing and cleaning up after the invisible hand and making every effort to loosen its grip on our collective throat. Such acts represent the relations of the great majority of us some of the time and a minority of us all the time. They are, as the two feminist economists who published together as J. K. Gibson-Graham noted, the nine-tenths of the economic iceberg that is below the waterline.