The Revolution Must Be Monetized

I just finished my annual financial marathon. It starts in January, when I put the last bank statement into the huge plastic bin containing folders of different receipts. Over the next few weeks, I sort through these receipts and total them. I gather my 1099s and W2s, thin slips of paper that drift in from California, DC, anywhere I could scrounge a dollar. Then I try to make sense of it all for the taxman. I can't. I hire someone to do it for me.

The last time I did my own taxes -- maybe a decade ago -- was back when I was employed only by a corporation. For years now, my income has come mainly from what I seek out myself, a mix of writing, lecturing and consulting. Freelancing is always the best and worst of both worlds. Once you become your own boss, you usually realize just how lousy a manager you are.

Take Farai the Manager. Every year, FtM claims that she will move to a more efficient computerized accounting system. Every year, FtM tries it for a month or two, throws up her hands in disgust, and moves back to what FtE -- Farai the Employee -- calls shoebox accounting. (That big plastic bin used to be a humble cardboard shoebox.) Particularly in this political climate, where many people mask their feelings and beliefs just to stay employed, FtE appreciates FtM's efforts. If only she were more efficient!

Many of my friends are progressive writers, artists and activists who have the same manager/employee split personality. The employees are always whining about something: Why don't we have (any/better) health insurance? A 401K? And when are we going to get a raise? The managers keep threatening to close the "factory" and throw us at the mercy of the market. The employees point out the socially responsible nature of their work. The managers mumble if anyone gives a damn.

The managers and employees are united on one front. We need more money. And more of a clue how to earn and use it.

Many of us are suspicious of money, not surprising when many of the people with a surplus use it to screw other folks over. But I believe the intellectual critiques of capitalism among many progressives actually have deeper and more personal roots.

Were your mother and father paid a fair wage? Could they even get a job? Could they keep it? Money is not just about numbers. How we use or abuse it depends on our emotional, political, and historical perspectives. During our childhoods, in particular, we develop ideas about whether money is a force to be feared or loved, and how likely we are to be able to control it.

This is how I remember the Reagan '80s. Schoolchildren in Baltimore cheering when Reagan got shot. Jokes about government cheese, usually coming from folks who ate it. The acceleration of the steep decline in urban public schooling. The constant longing to buy a brand-name anything that could provide a veneer of self-worth. Now that Reagan has slipped into the haze of Alzheimers, his hagiographers have gotten even more insistent. He wasn't about Iran-Contra and choking the life from cities. He built the perfect America.

Not mine.

The Bush Zeroes will divide America's memory as well. Did Bush II bring a return to values or an emphasis on the value of killing? Was that tax cut the beginning of the end of the American Empire, or simply a reward for the people who make this country great?

Too many progressives look at money as inherently tainted. We play a game of keep-away, bragging about who's broke. Meanwhile, urban pop culture has no compunction about acknowledging the value of money. Money can get you cars, clothes, sex and what passes for respect. Money, specifically the U.S. dollar, is the world's lingua franca. Many activists who presume to speak for the urban "underclass" talk about up-ending the economic system, as if that's what most people want. If our economy is a sinking ship, many would settle for a berth on the upper decks.

One of the most revolutionary things artists and activists could do is conduct their lives not as poverty crusades, all sackcloth and ashes, but as crusades to end poverty, including our own. Learning how to manage money -- and sharing that information with others -- is transformative. As I struggle to learn more about money, I also learn how much of my identity I've sold. One of my unpaid jobs is filling out all the forms from healthcare providers, banks and credit agencies, telling me I can only preserve my privacy rights if I explicitly say so in writing. In other words, your social security number, the medications you take and the videos you rent are all accessible by clicking a mouse unless (and maybe even) if you ask them not to be.

Understanding money means understanding America.

The revolution needs accountants.

Farai Chideya is the founder of

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