Pretty much everyone knows that it sucks to be a working class American: dull, dead end jobs, politicians who pander to you during elections but do nothing for us once elected, corporations that are constantly looking for ways to save money by cutting our job or sending it to Bangladesh, constantly working to fight back debt, pay the rent, hope we stay healthy since you couldn’t pay for health insurance this year, and wondering how the hell you are ever going to be able to afford to retire.
What’s really amazing, though, is how in this “free” society, our model of “successful, affluent living” is so constrained, stressful, and unhappy. Let’s look at the “American Dream,” successful living in the middle and upper-middle class.
As kids, we go to schools that suck the creativity and spontaneity out of life, rob us of the joy and wonder of learning, and in their place offer enforced conformity, blind obedience to authority, and fear of asserting our individuality (when I was in elementary school this was called “acting out,” and got you a chair in the corner and your name on the blackboard.. Increasingly this is called ADD and gets kids a Ritalin prescription)
After awhile, we internalize the messages being projected at us by teachers and parents–get good grades, earn a higher class rank than the other kids, get a top level GPA, get places in the best classes, rack up extracurriculars even if they don’t really interest you, cram like crazy for the SATs—all towards the goal of getting in “a good college.”
But the race is only just beginning. In college, the competition only heightens. Now, working hard isn’t enough. To compete with the other students, we start downing Red Bull like it’s water, making coffee a food group, getting dangerously little sleep, reading 100s of pages a night, and stressing to point of misery. If we can avoid letting the stress drive us to throwing ourselves off a balcony (as seems to be the vogue at places like New York University these days), or burning out and dropping out, we just might be among the lucky few who beats the pack and gets stellar grades to get you into the best grad/med/law school.
We’d better complete that thesis or get that law degree fast, because you have years worth of college loans to pay off. But we’d better do a good job, as well as work fast, because you’ll once again need to outcompete the other students to get the best internship or into a top residency program or entry level position with the top firm.
This cycle goes on for years as we work our way up the ladder, start making a sizable income, maybe find time to marry and have kids, buy a house and a fancy car, and take a second job to make ends meet. We work ourselves to exhaustion to the point where we come home, and want little more than to vegitate in front of the TV. Our kids group up around us, but we hardly have time to notice. There is money to be made, bills to be paid, and things to buy. Lacking the time to spend with our families, we make sure they we can provide them with gifts and all the latest consumer products–surrogate love in plastic wrapping.
The kids start to grow up, and putting them through college is added to the list of looming expenses. It’d be easier if they went to cheaper schools, but we need to give them the same head start we had, so that they can excel and get on the course to success– just like we did at their age.
As the years pass, and the health problems start to mount,we start wondering–what its all about, really? What is all this for? When does life get to be happy, meaningful, relaxed? When does living get to feel like it has a point, frankly?
Eventually we retire, and some of us finally get a chance to do the things we’ve always wanted. But for many of us, a lifetime of desk jobs and bad eating have taken their toll, and we are resigned to living life between doctors visits over a slow course of deterioration. For many of us, the end of work means the end of purpose in life. We build our whole lives around our careers, working to build a nest egg for retirement–but now what?
Freegans realize that life is too short, that we only get one shot, and that it is our right to cherish every moment we have here, to create lives that are worth living, to fully appreciate the wonder and promise of this amazing world.
At the same time, in a world filled with profound injustice, we feel that there are more important things to do with our time than work meaningless jobs that cause more pollution, make our rich bosses even richer, and do little to make the world a better place. As humanity destroys the biosphere of this planet, as corporations continue to profit from animal torture and global injustice, we recognize the need to devote our lives to the struggle for justice and ecological sanity– something that we can do far more effectively without the yoke of a 40-60 hour work week on our shoulders.
Because we realize that we don’t need the variety of products marketed to us, share more, reducing the need for individual possessions, and provide for our (far fewer) material needs via the waste of others and our own ability to repair and reconfigure existing goods, we keep our economic needs to a minimum. Freegans live in smaller and shared spaces, needing less energy to heat and light. Those who squat eliminate the expense of paying rent, bringing economic needs down to near zero.
Many people react angrily to such ideas. The American work ethic bristles at “freeloaders,” “slackers” and “bums.” But we need to ask ourselves–societal expectations aside, is playing the game really worth it? Are most people we know really happy doing it? Do we really feel ownership of our own lives– or like we are on loan from the corporations who employ us?
It’s tough to break away from the path that has been presented to us as “the only option.” But if we don’t we going through out lives and never really appreciate the possibilities this world can hold for us– lives based in communities of people who care about each other, replace materialism with a respect for the Earth, its inhabitants and our own lives, lives devoted to fighting for things that really and truly matter against the practices of the very corporations who would otherwise be our bosses.
So, would you rather be a pencil pushing CPA for a logging company, an underpaid logger who can be fired at any minute or injured on the job‚ or a direct action forest defender, organizing tree sits and setting up forest base camps to occupy endangered groves and prevent loggers from destroying them?
Would you rather work in marketing for a big box store chain that’s trying to play up the anxieties of teenage girls to market the latest clothes to them‚ or find a group to share skills in altering and repairing clothes, creating our own sense of style (or not) and growing the idea that we don’t need the crap that corporations are trying to make millions off selling to us?
Would you rather be a corporate lawyer, defending polluters from taking responsibility for the mess they’ve created‚ or sacrifice the big paycheck and use your law degree as a weapon against corporate injustice as a pro-bono or low-cost public interest lawyer?
Again, we only live once. Let’s make the most of it!
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