This article is part of our weekly series—Narratives to Build Collective Economic Power—which NPQ is publishing in partnership with the national racial and economic justice nonprofit Common Future. In this series, the authors write about their economic justice work and how, in their work, they challenge conventional narratives and offer new ways of thinking about who can be owners in the economy and what community economic development means.
Recently, I visited a woman’s textile cooperative called Ni En More, based in in Ciudad Juárez—across the border from El Paso, TX in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. A co-founder gave me a tour. She pointed to a design she had shaped in the concrete floor of an Aztec glyph. She said, “When the concrete trucks come by, I call them in, and I ask them to give me just a little bit. This concrete is from them. Then I make designs. Now I have art. From nothing, I make something. That is what we do.”
I am an artist too. In 2016, I cofounded an artist collective with three other women in Brownsville, TX. This collective, Las Imaginistas, now works at the local, national, and international levels to liberate the public imaginary. Our work imagines and builds more liberated futures for all beings.
Ni En More’s framing of making “something out of nothing” resonated with me because it aligns with how our community in Brownsville makes things. There I see community members use buckets and spare plywood to build front porch benches, an aesthetic that Tomás Ybarra-Frausto calls rasquachismo (and an idea brought to the Imaginistas by co-founder and past member Nansi Guevara).
What Ni En More meant by something out of nothing was that their bricolage aesthetic enables members of the collective can see what others cannot. Where others see nothing, they see possibility. This is a talent and a skill that is also anticolonial: instead of insisting on a type of singular imperialism, it prefers a sort of natural, emergent plurality, an ecosystem of diversity.
How can we shift perceptions of the world around us to bring this kind of abundance into focus? Instead of mining more deeply into the earth for further extraction, we might mine our own consciousness more deeply to develop new ways of relating to one another. The world is at a moment of changing consciousness. How we approach the problems ahead of us will be determined by our ability to soften attachment to old definitions of ourselves and welcome in new ways of being.
Economies of Agency and Autonomy
Economic power lies with us. “Us” could be me as the writer and you as the reader. It could be my household, anyone who I share property or a roof with. It could be people in my church. “Us” could be me and my dog, which together have labor power that supports sustenance.
I am drawing attention to two facts in the above statement:
- Economic power is not just about capital.
- Every individual has the ability to transform economic futures.
There is a passage in David Stannard’s American Holocaust where he describes the challenges faced by Indigenous people when encountering the completely foreign concept of European warfare. Indigenous people were baffled by the behavior of colonizers and their insistence upon violence. Stannard states (110):
Indian warriors might choose not to join in battle for this or that cause … it was even common for an Indian on the march to war to “melt away” as an individual warrior had second thoughts and turned home.
Stannard points to something other scholars have also highlighted: Indigenous cultures are varied, but many Indigenous communities privilege individual autonomy and agency as its own type of economy of resource, and center the individual’s ability to determine how to spend their own power (thoughts, time, and movement of body) rather than a capitalist focus on command and control from above. There are hierarchies of decision making but, as Stannard described, the power is loose, and someone can “opt-out.”
Let’s reframe opting-out as opting-in. The Indigenous people who “melted” away from the battle cry had a different vision, which placed energy (thought, time, love, and movement) into different spaces that affect how community resources (war power) are employed. When enough warriors melted away, so too did the possibility of battle. A battle with only a chief to wage war is in fact just a suicide mission.
We can likewise envision new ideas, but until we start to gather our resources towards a common goal, we will not affect societal change. In Stannard’s example, the chief will change his decision to go to war only if a critical mass of warriors melt away. One warrior may melt away, but if the others do not follow, then the larger course of history remains unchanged.
Personal Economies and Stolen Currency
Let’s talk about the economies of inheritance. Some race scholars argue that inheritance is one of the most important pathways for how racial injustice perpetuates itself in the United States. A recent report found that white families are 6.4 times as likely to inherit wealth than Latinx families, and 5.3 more likely than Black families. In addition to security in moments of hardship, inheritance also represents investment for more wealth to grow.
Even a modest amount of inherited wealth can finance a down payment for a home, investment in college, or payoff on a debt. Relying on wages without the boost from inherited wealth puts people of color in a position that perpetuates racial inequity for generations. Discussions on the wealth gap usually focus on the macro level, but what is within the power of the individual?
Inherited wealth is stolen wealth, especially that belonging to non-BlPOC families who have been in the US since before 1890. Wealth accumulated in this nation is based upon interest accumulated from genocide and enslavement. Furthermore, no one really owns land anyways. We are stewards of the land; when a white person receives an inheritance after the death of an elder, I believe there is a responsibility to examine the legacy and implications of those resources before accepting them.
What if all people who received inheritance paid a land tax to the Indigenous people the land was stolen from? Or just any Indigenous people at all? What if a percentage of that money went to reparations? These actions don’t require changing a law. For example, say 10 people in a county paid a 10 percent tax on their property valued at $100,000 at the time of inheritance, such a decision would move $100,000 to Black and Indigenous people every year.
In many states with large rural communities, there is a gap in funding for social justice initiatives. Said another way, there is more inequity to fight in places like Texas and less money to do it with. Multiple grants of $100,000 could shift that right now. It would not require passing a law, nor starting a foundation. What is required is that individuals examine how they personally might be profiting from historic, oppressive economics—and take personal action to rebalance that energy when they receive new resources. This approach builds on Sylvia Federici’s critique of Marxism, which spotlights that primitive accumulation (the hoarding of resources and wealth) is not just the foundation upon which capitalism is built, but how it is maintained.
Economies of Time
Now, let’s take a closer look at examples of non-currency economies. To name a few, the economies of thought, time, love, and movement—but the list is infinite. The Kogi in the land today known as Colombia say that the universe was first created with a thought. First came consciousness, then the idea to manifest, then life itself.
So, what kinds of thoughts are you manifesting and encouraging? adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy approaches this idea with different language, saying, “what you pay attention to grows.” The artwork of Talia Link addresses these and similar questions, but through economies of time. Link calculated that the amount of time she spent applying makeup in her lifetime was equivalent to the time she spent completing a master’s degree at an Ivy League university. Link’s work contemplates the hidden—and often gendered—ways we spend economies of time.
The infrastructure around us makes paths embedded in colonialism seductive and dopamine-fueled: bursts from the brain after shopping, scrolling on social media, or eating something sugary are biological responses that capitalists know about and exploit. Choosing to forgo the tomato sauce with added sugar may be more difficult for a few reasons: the sugar version is more ubiquitous and less expensive, and it has been manufactured to trigger our brain to think it tastes better. But sugar, Instagram, and outlet malls were not around when our brain did most of its evolving. Our brains are being hacked by power systems that have corrupted its wiring. It is no coincidence that 1) stimulants like caffeine, sugar, and alcohol have a history of labor extraction that directly aligns with upholding and advancing colonial power, and 2) the popularization of their distribution aligns with the spread of capitalism and industrialization.
How Capitalist Narratives Usurp Individual Creativity
Social, legal, and economic infrastructure (fueled by private business and militarized government) can usurp individual power to advance the interests of the state. Draft dodging laws (active in almost every country with a military) make illegal the Indigenous practice of “melting away” at the time of battle, encouraging people to ignore their intuition and defer to authority.
The United States has a particular array of socioeconomic narratives that usurp individual power, ironically by playing to the individual’s ego. We are told a myth of separateness from all other beings and are encouraged to invest in the singularity of our own individuality. These ideas are reflected in our built environment, which reflects the thoughts of those who colonized this land before we were born.
It is difficult to remember our connection to nature in this nation. Colonization was a deliberate Holy War on nature as Stannard details, and colonizers defined many aspects of the world as demonic, including both nonwhite human beings (Black and Indigenous people) as well as nonhuman beings (trees, rocks, bears). Missionaries are quoted describing the wildlife as unbearable. They delighted in forcing Indigenous people, despite their terror and protest, to cut down trees and “civilize” forested land.
Today, you might have to get in a car to connect with a tree that is not on private property. Modern urban planning of this continent started with European colonizers cutting down and dividing up nature. Rachel St. John writes that, “Thomas Jefferson, believed that the United States’ unique experiment in republican government depended on the continued availability of open land” (Line in the Sand, 16) that could be cleared and deforested.
The succeeding biggest influences in the built environment were: 1) the proliferation of the car industry; the US leads the world in the use of cars, a symbol of individualization and a major contributor to global environmental destruction (both through gas consumption and infrastructure maintenance); and 2) redlining, a process that perpetuated infrastructural racism. The result is cities throughout the US that have poor walking and public transportation infrastructure, are highly segregated, and possess little shared public space. The ideas of privatization and race are so steeped in American spatial infrastructure that Trayvon Martin was shot for not looking like he belonged in the neighborhood through which he was walking.
The United States has a social, economic, legal, digital, and built infrastructure that:
- Discourages awareness of personal and collective power
- Encourages the myth of the individual, i.e., someone who is disconnected from the environment around them and exists only in a hierarchy, above or below other human beings
- Perpetuates theft of resources (from mother earth, the violation of personal economies, and the coerced extraction from Indigenous communities)
The solution to confronting the illusion of individuality, returning to collective power, and creating right-relationship with the earth will require redistributing resources, beginning at the macro level. These outcomes may be achieved via:
- Acknowledgement of individual agency
- Building collective agency for amplification of shared impact
- Experimentations in accountability through social practices that build relationships and community power.
Zapotec scholar Jaime Martínez Luna argues that comunalidad confronts “the individualism imposed as part of the logic of colonialism, privatization, and mercantilism, which are developed according to a philosophy centered in the individual as the axis of the universe” (Comunialidad as the Axis of Oaxacan Thought in Mexico). Comunalidad describes a cultural way of being that Luna observed in Indigenous communities of Oaxaca.
Comunalidad is a way of life in which all life elements are structured to reinforce relational ties. In this culture, a community might create its own government, pool resources to hold a coming-of-age party for a young woman, or host late night dancing as an integral component of movement building. Comunalidad reflects Indigenous principles in which all parts of life are: 1) connected to the social, 2) in service of the collective, and 3) inseparable in their impact. The importance of the dance party cannot be categorized or individualized as only social, but instead is a product of a collective community and builds community power. Instead, the dance party is part of building social relations, where cultural values are taught, and the foundations are laid for societal organization.
Comunalidad bears strong connections to barter economies and mutual aid, but here the emphasis is shifted. Instead of being focused on the economy itself, the central node around and through which energy is exchanged is the relationship. The strength of the relationship works in direct relationship to the degree of investment (through time or material goods) that may be exchanged. Without relationship, there is no exchange. With relationship, there is a constant flow, back and forth, of resources in service of maintaining the collective.
Comunalidad is an incredibly important quality for a world amid a climate emergency. And it is a concept that resonates with BIPOC activists. In their podcast, How to Survive the End of the World, the Brown sisters (adrienne maree brown and Autumn Brown) posit questions like “What is your plan for when the power grid goes out?”
In Emergent Strategy, brown says, “the depth of relationships between individuals in a system determines the strength of the system.” The answers to social, economic, and cultural transformation are rooted in community: community that will help you fix a pothole, people you can call in the middle of night, neighbors you want to dance with. These kinds of relationships are social investments in the people themselves. These economies are ones every individual has the power and agency to shape.
The Commons and Women’s Labor
Feminist Marxist scholar Sylvia Federici observes two key forces perpetuating inequity via capitalism: 1) the disappearance of common spaces where people could grow crops and graze livestock; and 2) a system that robs women of their labor by assigning to them uncompensated work such as elder care and childcare. An alternative is to create commons spaces where resources can be shared and to pay women reparations or wage earnings for domestic work within their own families.
These solutions may be implemented at the individual or collective level. One person could give away three acres of private property to a community. One family could pay family members for their domestic labor. Such actions could also be turned into movements. For instance, one person could convince three others to purchase land for the community; legislation could be passed requiring that all domestic labor be paid.
Even when obstacles appear to the implementation of wage reparations and reestablishment of the commons, we can return to the ideas of comunalidad; alternative economies; and currencies of time, thought, and kinetic/energetic movement. Everyone has access to the later three currencies. Then the questions become:
- What do we want to do with this abundance of resources?
- How do we want to mobilize them?
- How do we want to activate them?
- What is our strategic plan for the disruption of unjust resource distribution?
A Comment on the Future
There are an infinity of economies waiting to be named and engaged that will advance liberation and right relationship to the planet. My hope here is to offer a few social framings that name some of these practices and ideas for interventions.
Going back to the collective my colleagues and I cofounded, we called ourselves Las imaginistas for a reason. To build a new economy, we must first imagine it. The name itself is a mash up of two words: Imaginar (to imagine in Spanish) and Zapatistas, the world building, community organizing movement led by Indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico. We are warriors shaping what is possible by navigating our imagination with rigor.
Economic power lies with us. It lies with me, and it lies within you, the reader. The late Indigenous scholar, Jack D. Forbes, said the evils of colonization are perpetuated by the middleman, people working in bureaucracy telling themselves and others they have no power to change the system, that they are just doing what they must to survive.
We must awaken to our power to stop the system, to be wedges of change within its cogs. Last year, I awoke to my power to say, “the colonial mindset stops with me. I will not perpetuate it.” Now, it is up to me to understand how to implement that commitment in my daily life. I encourage you to imagine what inequities (economic or otherwise) you see in your life, what resources you have access to—and how you might bend them towards justice.