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Great Social Transformation

By Tia Chianti Richardson

Polanyi: Great Transformation

“The outstanding discovery of recent historical and anthropological research is that man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. Neither the process of production or that of distribution is linked to specific economic interests attached to the possession of goods; but every single step in that process is geared to a number of social interests…. These interests will be very different in a small hunting and fishing community from those in a vast despotic society, but in either case the economic system will be run on non-economic motives.” Polanyi, 46

A few month ago some friends and I were getting ready for a road trip to the ReImagining Work conference at the end of October in Detroit, MI. We’d just finished reading the latest book by Grace Lee Boggs – a 91 year-old Asian-American civil rights activist living in Detroit, called “The Next American Revolution, Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century”.  Inspired by her thoughts and the growing sense that consciousness around employment as we know it needs to shift, we asked each other the question: What would your typical day look like if you didn’t have to worry about paying bills? I remembered the old times in ancient cultures like Rome and Greece, where basic needs like food, housing, clothing and shelter were provided for. The Arts flourished; people thought, reflected, and shared stories.

I’m beginning to understand and believe that a truly enlightened society means basic needs are met so we can, as humans, go on about our business of being the creative souls we are – tapping our potential in more meaningful ways. The question challenges us to think about who we are outside of the paradigm of needing to spend a chunk of life paying for basic necessities.

Reflecting on this question, I felt a great sense of excitement and purpose on attending the conference, along with nine other friends from  Milwaukee and Chicago. The conference was highlighted by living civil rights leaders such as Grace Lee Boggs, Ron Scott (an African-American man who founded Detroit’s Peace Zones for Life, to combat police brutality) and Vandana Shiva who was present via video feed. Others in attendance and who formed panels were everyday activists living and working in the communities of Detroit around all sorts of issues affecting the livelihoods and souls of urban folk. One of the underlying, unofficial messages that I witnessed revealing itself through thought, word and deed throughout the conference was the concept of “Growing our Souls”, something mentioned often in Grace’s latest book called “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century”. I highly recommend it.

What I experienced was the genuine drive and presence of heart in people; endowed with a sense of social responsibility and a commitment grounded in authenticity that rivaled much of what I have often only dreamed of. Most importantly – re-thinking around what ‘work’ means for me personally as an artist – I connected with some artists/activists from the Detroit summer mural program who use community-based art with youth as a tool for growing our souls and our humanity. Imbued with this spirit, I left reinvigorated around the work that I want to do in the world, and most importantly, with the realization that what I thought of as community-based art was just a mere reflection compared to what I saw and felt happening in Detroit!

Not only that, but almost everyone I spoke with embodied this drive of spirit, this fervor of heart – in a very grounded and authentic way. The reality of Detroit as a ground zero of sorts for restructuring the ways we live and be in relationship with one another, out of necessity, began to etch its way into my heart in a very real way as I came vitally into contact with that spirit in many people I had conversations with.

Back to the Question: What would my day look like? I would make things, especially for people I love. I’m reminded of being pre-adolescent and the joy I had in doing just that. I would put more value on relationships than mere duties or obligations. I’d help people organize their thoughts, realize their creative passions or just help them work through difficulty. In being fully present for myself I’d have more of myself to be present for others. I’d realize the simplicity that it is to fully exist, with  joy, in a given moment, and the gift that it is to have more conversations, more potluck dinners, build social structures in society. That would be an awesome day.

Reflecting on how important relationships are and how often they are mis-represented, mis-understood, or ignored: the most beautiful thing would be that there’d be WAY more space to use my/our creativity to dream up how we want to be in relationship with each other based on what we are truly needing at the time. So-and-so is having difficulty with an issue; we as a community can rally around him in support, or work toward resolution without worrying about the job we have to get to the next morning. Supporting each other IS our collective job and divine birthright! Imagine if we could do that outside of the framework of a J-O-B.

One of the positive things I see about the high level of unemployment is what people are realizing about having a lot of free time. To paraphrase Michael Strelcheck, whose thoughts I respect, who would have thought leisure time, something greatly desired by humanity, would become a stumbling block? For as they say, “Idle hands lead to idle minds.” To quote another wise teacher, Mr. Djwal Khul, who wrote in the 1940’s, referring to the present New Age – “The problem of labor will then be the major problem of unemployment – a dreaded word which will be meaningless in the golden age which lies ahead. The masses will then be faced with the problem of leisure. This is a problem which WHEN FACED and solved will release the creative energy of man into channels undreamed of today.”

“When faced and solved…” wow…that is exciting. Solved not through what has failed us already, but solved because we’ve realized collectively that through our authentic relationships with one another, we have a whole lot more potential as humanity than filling up slots in a work-a-day model of mechanistic labor and free enterprise.­


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