Thoughts on RFK, Jr’s visit to Camden

Rusty  Conroy, a long time friend of CFET, offers this short essay as a response to RFK, Jr.’s talk on October 4, 2014.

‘True communal’:

Thoughts stimulated by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s ‘true free market’ environmentalism

 Why do some people need to make so much more than others? So much that they can change the laws to favor themselves? Or distort elections? Or have major control over how police and militaries are used? Or propagate a slanted culture, privileging stories that favor the current rigged set-up and ignoring stories that imagine something different?

Think about annual incomes of $50.000 versus $75,000 per year, or $75,000 and $100,000, or $75,000 and $125,000. Why must income differences be more than that? Aren’t these enough of a motivating factor to stimulate a person’s doing a little more rather than a little less, one kind of work rather than another? After all, there are other motivating factors: artistry, solidarity, self-respect. I know first-hand, having spent a satisfying 35-year community college teaching career with an almost flat salary.

Bringing this down to specifics, what would we say—perhaps, $75,000 for PhD-ed professors (my peak) and $125,000 for MD-ed medical doctors? How about $50,000 for ordinary home health aids and $75,000 for exemplary ones? Think about, as possibly sufficient, $125,000 for pioneers in nanotechnology—and maybe the same for pioneers in non-violent social change?

(Feel free to suggest other figures; these are only to start the conversation. Maybe I never ‘got’ free enterprise! I always told my students that if we come across an inventor who won’t launch his I-pad or a ‘top doc’ who won’t treat patients for $125,000 a year, then let’s say no thank you and look for someone else who will.)

When we reward energy, drive, ambition, and hard work, don’t we mean to distinguish between work whose aim is making the world a better place from work that is principally for self-aggrandizement? Even more, from work that makes the world a little worse? Why should we honor, or even allow, a social structure that rewards enterprise, organizational ability, even ‘genius’, if it is genius for the benefit of a small and partisan group, new and brilliant ways of shifting harm from private corporations to the commons? In Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s terms, why should we let cheaters wreck the “true free market”? ‘True’ would be the designation for free enterprise that internalizes all costs as well as benefits, especially costs to nature. Yes, we applaud this! A free enterprise in which wind mills and solar panels triumph over fossil fuels and nuclear. And we salute his efforts, as an environmental lawyer.

But here is where I want to engage Mr. Kennedy in dialogue. Why “true free enterprise” alone?

If in the USA we are going to insist on a free-market structure, and not allow anything else, shouldn’t we integrate that requirement and its justification more explicitly into the curriculum at every level so all of us know the ground rules? And wouldn’t doing a good job at such integration include entertaining some counter-arguments, envisioning variations, and encouraging dialogue about the nature of the “true” here? I, for example, was not introduced to free enterprise—how to do it, and how it is part of the rules—much at all in 6 years of primary, six years of secondary, and nine years of post-secondary education. I should have been required to think up repeated projects in free enterprise, each year advancing in sophistication and real-world practicality, shouldn’t I? Shouldn’t it have been explained to me that any idea any of us ever has about making the world a better place cannot, at least in the USA, be addressed directly, but has to include the intermediate step of translating our proposed changes into something that is marketable and profitable for someone?

I would have appreciated that honesty. But I want to push it further: say we wanted to honor “true free market” with an even more challenging test, the chance to withstand the most worthy opponent. Wouldn’t a good way be to alternate our teaching of the “true free market,” at every level, with the strongest possible counter narrative? What would that be? “True socialist”? “True communist”?

Or perhaps we need a new word without baggage. “True communal,” we might call it, referring to the history, promise, biology, ecology, and philosophy of working together; including its ethos, its literature, its music, its personalities; thinking of how it is part already of our daily routine, in schools, workplaces, families and neighborhoods. The exact word ‘communal’ is negotiable, but I like the ‘commun’ root, and suggest a compromise between “community” (which in the USA has good connotations) and “communist” (which in the USA is rejected out of hand).

Wouldn’t we give a chance for another type of personality to thrive if we developed the ‘commun’ side of the curricula alongside true free market’s emphasis on competition, the “hidden hand,” individual success, and the race to the top? Wouldn’t we in fact be doing something not controversial but more self-consciously embracing what is already part of our fabric, educating not just the competitive self but also the cooperative self? Don’t we already mean to do that? Aren’t many of our young people more drawn to lives of joining together in cooperation with others rather than beating them in the marketplace? Aren’t such students currently bewildered by an educational system and economy that invites them to succeed leaving others behind rather than to cooperate? Don’t inner-city (Camden?) youth who have joined with churches, neighborhood groups, and movements know this already?

Gandhi’s word ‘satyagrahi’ means one who acts nonviolently, practicing satyagraha. An analogous word ‘communi’ might be used for one who chooses as an emphasis in life joining with others. Sketched, an image of ‘communi’ might convey an alternative model of what a person is. The free-market self: competing, ambitious, determined, prospering in its aloneness—perhaps represented by isolated circles. The relational self, or ‘communi’: seeking connection, being-with, interrelatedness, cooperation— represented by more vague and shifting curvatures, always with feelers extending out.

Couldn’t we agree on a curriculum and a world that prizes both? Isn’t what makes the “true free market” true really its incorporation of a portion of its opposite right within itself—cooperation to set up ground rules that guard against cheating? And isn’t what makes “true commual” true really that is creates a form of cooperation within which each person can individuate and thrive?

These ideas recall the yin-yang symbol, draw on the vision of Thomas Berry, and are indebted to the work of Peter Kropotkin, the young Marx, Paulo Freire, and the current movement called Legion del Afecto in Colombia.


Rusty Conroy