Two dearly beloved longtime readers/actual human friends who are also real-life life partners who live together posted SIMULTANEOUSLY YET UNBEKNOWNST TO ONE ANOTHER on my last entry, asking me for, of all things, stock market advice! Well, one of them wasn’t asking for advice, to be fair, but their comments were about the same issue, and that’s crazy enough for me.
Here is their mutual question as voiced by one of them:
First off, I want to acknowledge that this is an AWESOME problem to have. Please excuse me if this sounds like I am complaining about good fortune!
So my partner and I had long discussion last night about investing in the stock market. She is a university professor, as you know. I am a freelancer with many random jobs, including some adjunct work. Through privilege, pandemic luck, a bushel of scarcity thinking, and seven years of my partner’s stable income, we’ve managed to amass a savings of $15K. We both feel safer than we ever have, feeling like if something happened to our house or medically we are finally in a place where we wouldn’t be in crazy trouble. Once we hit this savings goal, we began to aggressively pay down debts, highest interest rate first.
So that’s where we’re at. The problem is that that savings is just sitting in point zero zero zero whatever apr savings accounts and my partner feels like she is being stupid by not investing it. She doesn’t LIKE capitalism, but feels like “participating in the economy” is how life works if you want to be comfortable when you retire or if you have extra money, like literally, you are being stupid if you’re not using it at least to keep up with inflation.
I know this is SO dramatic sounding, but the thought of willingly investing in the stock market makes me feel ill. Encouraging unethical business practices, the ethos of growth, and “finding new markets,” all of it. Not to mention, I believe investing in the stock market has the power to degrade folks’ moral characters. God, it sounds so crazy to say that, but we live in trump territory and most of the people who are into him are so strictly for their retirement accounts. We’ve talked about alternatives, including peer-to-peer lending, real estate (maybe like a real estate investing co-op), and even weird (to me) shit like gold bars/coins. None of this seems as logical and straightforward as an index fund to my partner.
We have a non-optional stock market-based retirement account through my partner’s job. In the last few months, I have been randomly bequeathed stock in a utility company that my grandfather worked for. So I know that I’m already participating. My partner makes the point that we already participate by just being alive in this country and I see her point. But life is choices, right? Every day, we try to make decent choices, going to the farmer’s market, reusing things, not eating meat, whatever. I don’t know. I have the feeling I’m being a huge baby but I also having a really hard time processing the idea of willingly investing in the market system.
One last thing: we’ve agreed that we have until March 1 to come up with a compromise solution or we’ll just go for it. I’ve promised her that I’ll be fully on board, joking I’ll get myself a green tinted visor and a cute pair of suspenders for the occasion. We’ve also talked about how we’d rather not divide the savings into “hers” and “mine” and instead want to do something as a team.
Any advice for a more productive conversation around this or for just swallowing this pill?
My friends, let me preface my predictably long meandering overwrought response by first very definitively saying: me no know.
This life is so complicated and contradictory and I don’t know if I can tell you concretely what you should do, not least because I haven’t solved this problem for myself either. My partner and I are similarly comfortable thanks to similarly privileged life trajectories/my current employment situation, and we similarly now have a little money in the bank, and don’t really know what to do with it aside from putting it into our home, which we also own and said ownership of which also chains us–albeit in a more abstracted way–to the stock market (in the form of “property values”) etc.
We don’t invest in the stock market ourselves, for all the reasons you mention in your question, so in that sense I guess I am more on your side than your partner’s. BUT!!! I have many caveats to this. For starters, as your partner points out, we too are already “invested” in the stock market, with or without our full consent. I am a state employee, and so I have a pension fund, like your partner. I have nothing to do with it, didn’t choose it, don’t manage it in any way, but it’s there, a fund for my retirement that I pay into and that my university manages on my behalf, and I imagine it’s all part of the university’s own investment package, you know, how they take their money and put it in fossil fuels and resource extraction and real estate speculation then so it’s like the health of my retirement fund is contingent on the health of the university’s other investments, a.k.a. the rape of the planet/other cultures/the poor. This is upsetting. And there are movements to divest the university from fossil fuels and all that, but nothing’s ever gonna change this basic dynamic. I can’t remember if it’s Marx or somebody else I’ve recently read, but basically literally any time you get a profit off an investment it is coming from somebody’s unpaid labor, somewhere. That’s just the deal.
Every qualm and conundrum and back-and-forth you and your partner mention is exactly right. Everyone has to survive in this system and there IS NO WAY of doing that without being complicit in this system in some way, as your partner notes. “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” and all that. There is no “good” way to retire–it will ALWAYS be done on the backs of other people elsewhere, somehow, so long as our social organization is chained to capitalism. There are no “good” jobs, only jobs manifesting varying degrees of complicity with the overriding system of global evil and destruction that is required for accumulation to continue.
ON THE OTHER HAND, there is complicity and there is complicity, right? Like you say, life is choices. There is “I have to work for somebody so I guess I’ll take this random desk job or wait tables” and there is “hmmm I will deliberately write code for Amazon to sell to the U.S. military.” There is buying a home to live in and there is buying 10 homes to rent out to people who don’t have generational wealth. There is putting your money in the bank because you have to put it somewhere and there is BEING a banker, and taking all that money and sticking it into the global imperialist project.
It’s hard to both recognize that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism (and rent is theft and wages are theft and ACAB etc.) and nonetheless figure out some sort of life plan/set of choices that you are able to live with, morally, while also continuing to, you know, literally live.
And yet, like your partner, I sometimes worry that we are being foolish. If we reject all these investments and opportunities to make money, what does it mean for us? If we are 65 and living in penury because of choices made in our impetuous radical youth (lol “youth” but you know what I mean) what does that really look like, how will that feel, will it be pathetic and will we regret it? Gary says: well, if that is how it plays out, then we will just die in penury, like millions of people currently do every day already. We aren’t special and we don’t have some special preferential spot on the earth where like it’s wrong for us personally to suffer the same fate everybody else does. This is really hard and scary to think about. We are trying to basically embrace the reality of death, which is maybe impossible and anyway super fucking scary and sad.
By this I mean, facing your own death and your own insignificance in the global project. Things start seeming smaller, maybe, maybe in a good way. In fact maybe it helps to put it in different terms than “facing death,” which is admittedly so brutal and perhaps needlessly metal. Maybe it’s more like, “insisting on life.” Real life. Doing things, and doing them in such a way, so as to insist that a better world is possible. And that we can all choose to live in that world, already, whenever we get the opportunity. That’s what “mutual aid” is for example–an act of “prefiguration” where you simply behave as though you already live in the world as you want it to be, a world where people help each other totally outside of any organizational or institutional or legal framework, and with no money changing hands. The more mutual aid we do, the more it spreads, the more practices get folded into it. Will these small-scale experiments bring about the downfall of global capitalism? Obviously not, but they plant seeds. They create ties. They open up ideas of what could be possible, if things were to become different. So e.g. we have this woo-woo feeling that by not putting our money in places where you are supposed to put it, and instead using it for other stuff in the here and now, we are acting as though we believe by the time we are old the world will be different. Like we’re putting our faith in that, as an act of hopeful practice. I do think that in reality this is stupid and won’t work out for us, so, you know, caveat emptor on this whole concept.
Ok so anyway these are my thoughts on your side of the equation, sort of, I guess. AND YET, I also want to turn back toward your partner’s point of view. Because I also think I believe that there are lots of ways to turn away/turn toward, and that it’s our responsibility to find those ways for ourselves, where they make sense for us, in our own situations. Maybe for your emotional health you really should invest your nest egg! Everyone is in a different situation. For example I know that my familial situation engenders in me a deeply-felt sense that “it’ll all probably work out,” because my parents are well off and I’ve always had a support network I’ve taken utterly for granted because it’s always absolutely unconditionally been there. I’ve definitely been broke as hell in my life but deep down there was always the absolute knowledge that if I really needed to I could ask mommy and daddy for help and they would help me instantly. So like being broke was an inconvenience and stressful and sometimes humiliating but it has never yet been SCARY, for me (knock on wood; my life ain’t over yet). I think this stuff looks and feels a lot different to people living closer to the edge, obviously, so there’s another caveat from me.
And anyway we’re always entangled in this system so long as we continue living in society, which I think we have to do. You can’t leave society, that’s nihilistic and probably impossible anyway. So, if we choose not to invest in the stock market, we are still feeding into the system in other ways. Given the fact of all of our complicity, yet also given the fact that it’s also all of our (in this case “our” meaning “people with the luxury to have choices at all”) responsibility to critically engage with this and make good decisions anyhow, somehow, I don’t think there are, or should be, rules for everyone to follow. I think you have to decide your own rules for yourself, you have to answer the thought experiment yourself, and how to put imagined things into practice yourself, in the way that makes sense for your context. Not Investing In The Stock Market is maybe just one rule; there could be many others. If you do invest your little nest egg, maybe you could actively challenge yourself to look for other opportunities to offset that act of complicity. Where are there opportunities to “create the new world in the shell of the old,” for you? They exist everywhere, and will be different for different people. I don’t know if this is an ideologically coherent thing I am suggesting, but I THINK this is basically what Gary and I do, for whatever that is worth to you to hear.
I love thinking about all the different needs the struggle has, all the different ways we can be useful to each other. I’m a middle aged middle class white intellectual, what are my skills, what is authentic to me, who do I have access to to build coalition with, to challenge, to be challenged by? To whom can I be useful and how? I just read an essay by a guy who couldn’t get hired as a history professor in the 50s because he was a communist, so instead he went to law school and became an employment lawyer and spent his career helping poor people sue their bosses. He said he first thought about just saying fuck it and going to work in a factory, but then he was like, that’s stupid, I am who I am, and because of who I am I have the opportunity to use the tools of the system to serve people who don’t have access to those tools, so that’s what I should do. And he’s like 100 years old now and he says he feels great about this life choice. A life spent relentlessly hectoring rich people! #goals
I guess I’m describing something a lot more concrete than just “try to be a good person” or like “give some money to charity.” I’m saying, find an actual project, a thing to really do in real life with your actual human hands, a way to change your own life so that it is turned toward a radically different, better world, in some way, even if in a small way, or a temporary way. I know you already do good work like this; maybe the answer to your painful dilemma is to consciously dedicate yourself to doing more of it, in addition to whatever else you do to survive. Mutual aid work, direct actions of all kinds, maybe you turn your garage into a free place for someone to live, maybe you start a free school in your town, maybe you offer classes to incarcerated people in your area on whatever they want to learn about within your purview, maybe you start a food distribution network or join an existing one, maybe you have a cool skill like gardening or canning or construction and you can offer free instruction in those skills, like literally put up a flyer at the library and just go for it, maybe you start a group to make demands of your city council, maybe you do a community needs survey and use it to demand your town defund the police, literally there are so many things to be done, given where you are, what the needs of your community are, what skills you can collectively muster.
This essay on accomplices not allies is really thought provoking for me, maybe it will be helpful to you. It’s one attempt to outline What Should People With Relatively More Comfort/Access/Etc. ACTUALLY DO. And it suggests a framing that I have been finding really useful lately, in reorienting myself in the struggle. What can you do from INSIDE, where you–regrettably, perhaps, and anyway through no particular fault of your own–happen to have ended up living? I mean to the extent that we even are “inside,” in terms of access to wealth and power. We have a little bit more access than a lot of other people, I guess you could say. And here by “we” I literally just mean myself and the two people I am addressing in this entry, lol, I don’t know anything about the rest of you people!!!
There are certainly radicals out there who would read this entry and think “what a bunch of bullshit.” Bunch of rich people wringing their hands about how to both live comfortably in the imperial core AND somehow serve the struggle. Well, you can’t do both, they would say, and maybe they are right. Maybe I am justifying a lifestyle that is unjustifiable (I don’t mean to be “justifying” it, though, exactly, but like maybe I’m being lazy or turning away from something I should be willing to grapple harder with, I don’t know). But I think there are roles for everyone to play and that we all have different ways we can authentically contribute, and I also think you can’t really change who you are and how you’ve been shaped by the various compounding accidents of birth. You can abdicate and go join the guerrillas in the jungle, and some people do do that, and that totally rules, I just have limitless awe and respect for that act. But I also have to believe there are other ways to be of service than only the most extreme acts of abdication. What can you do, in your position? To whom are you legible? To what do you have access? Where can you reach out, make a connection, build something with those around you? This is where I’m at, at this moment in my political development, so this is what I say to you guys in response to your dilemma. I’m saying something less extreme than “quit your jobs and move to Chiapas and learn to use automatic weapons” and something more extreme than “just do your best and don’t be too hard on yourself.” Something in between those two poles. Something that is real and that manifests real change in our lives, a change that grows and flowers out of really critically grappling with reality, but that also doesn’t cause us undue anguish or pointless suffering. Investing or not investing, ultimately this is passive either way–what is something active that’s also available to you?
I don’t know what else there is to do, honestly. You can’t abdicate privilege, it will always be part of you. I think it’s our job to find ways to put it to use, and that means staying here, and staying here means being complicit also, and constantly struggling with ourselves in deciding what is the right way to be, what little examples of a new world can we create together right here in the shitty shell of the old one. And we will never do this perfectly, ever. And that’s it!
I love you both and I am glad to be with you in this struggle, and I also will say I hope you can find a way to make this struggle joyful and not just grueling/a source of antagonism betwixt you. This is the real stuff, what life is all about! Grappling together. I think whatever you decide to do after all this grappling will be great.
Also I’m sorry that this went off the rails and I talked about a bunch of stuff you weren’t actually asking about. But I took this opportunity to work through some problematics I’ve been chewing over in my own life, so thank you for indulging me (as always).