I have never been comfortable with money. The chasing it, living my life for numbers. In America, as an immigrant, I was saturated with the lack of it. Lower middle class, chasing the American dream, the endless informercials and my family trying so many pyramid schemes, doing the grunt work to make someone else wealthy, but also believing in the great hope, like selling water conditioners door to door in rich neighbourhoods, in Las Vegas, in suits, in July, with my high school friend John, no one buying, and deciding no, that’s not it. Growing up with the bill collectors calling, the endless stress and worries, money, never enough of it. I thought, hey, I am not gonna chase it, I’m gonna lower my desires, as much as possible, so I require less money. Lower middle class forever.
But also, lately, middle aged and 44, no retirement, no kind of property, some signs of declining health, nothing to sell in a pinch except this computer, maybe some books, precarious low paid work for 13 years as an adjunct English teacher at wealthy colleges (this year was my wealthiest year in 28 years of working, in proportion to the cost of living, it was 14,000 euro), and doing a lot of extra unpaid work for various wealthy institutes and colleges, and I am wondering where all the money is going. If students, or rather their rich parents, are paying so much money for tuition, why are the workers/teachers paid so little. The people making the money just keep making more money. The system is rigged. It is one big casino and the house almost always wins. Sure, someone might win now and again, but that’s to keep the workers working, believing the impossible dream, that one day they will become a master, and continue the system, or at hit it big and retire, somehow. The masters are born wealthy, move their wealth around, make more money. It is all a game. Forget about it. Nowadays, if you graduate in something to do with the arts and the humanities, you can almost guarantee it, some form of poverty, unless you have something to fall back on, like a wealthy family, or maybe a trade of some kind, but rarely university teaching. The university lecturer and poet Sophie Robinson recently tweeted about the casualisation of academic labor, and of course the arts are also causalised, you are supposed to donate your time, energy, and creative labour for free. If you already have the wealth from family, some kind of lucky background, where you can afford to work for free, this is all fine and well, you can write or paint as a hobby, donate your time and energy, nothing wrong with that of course, very good, but for those trying to survive and keep their heads above water, it feels a lot different. I have noticed, quite often, although not always of course, teachers teaching for pocket money for wealthy institutions and feeling fine with this. There are various reasons I am sure, but I keep seeing teachers who have a rich spouse, their partner is a diplomat for example, and they just want to teach an English class or an art class or something for a little extra cash, pocket money for weekend getaways. But what about those of us who rely on this money for literal survival. Well, that’s just the game. If someone agrees to work for low pay, it is low pay for everyone. Everything is ruled by profit, but what about an attempt at a universal declaration of rights for workers? We are still waiting.
Even in writing this post, I feel sick inside. What if I earn less than 14,000 next year. What if this post is bad luck. I should keep quiet and feel grateful to have shelter and food and also enough money for books and even some entertainment. So many people in the world have it much much worse, it is hard to even imagine. But I also wonder about what we value, in our cultures, where we put our time and energy, what we support economically.
Some folks might argue this market system of value rewards those who graduate with degrees in engineering, economics and business, and that sometimes poverty is more or less the fault of people who choose to follow a path in the arts. But equally another question to consider is why we choose not to value the arts, and often reward professions that cause great destruction and harm to our planet, and also our psychological well-being.
I never expect any money for a performance of my work, in part because money is dirty and I don’t want my art dirty, and also I don’t feel entitled or worthy, I am not important enough. When there is some kind of compensation, even the cost of a train ticket for traveling to the venue, I feel very lucky. Why is this? I am afraid of losing my freedom to create by having it tied to money.
I am seeing the economic and political system more and more for what it is, massively skewed towards free government handouts (tax breaks for example) for those who are already wealthy, while the real hard work is born on the back of the workers, and we as workers are brainwashed into thanking those very masters who have rigged the system in their favour. What is up with that? Well, we are told stories, mostly fairy tales. One of the stories is if you work really hard, and believe in your dreams, doors will open, everything will work out. Another form of hoodwinking? Maybe.
Maybe after 28 years of working on this planet, I will earn a more comfortable wage, and maybe even have something in case I retire, and if I have more money I will not necessarily change into something I have always feared: the middle class hungry monster. Maybe there are many kinds of middle class. Books have been written, from a utopian capitalist perspective, on how to become a millionaire, thereby making the author a millionaire. This is especially the case in America, the capitalist pyramid par excellence, a dystopian nightmare for many. Everything is bigger in America. There is never enough. It is the ultimate hungry monster. In most of Europe, with things generally smaller, and at least some humane systems of welfare and concern for citizens and community, things are overall much better. And it is much easier to survive simply here in Spain than in London, London being a copycat of American values that favours bankers and property chasers. But also, of course, the hungry monster is here too, almost everywhere. Capitalist values have engulfed the planet, we are all hungry monsters, to varying degrees.
As a writer, from a lineage of avant garde artists, middle class is usually a sign of less authenticity, at least in my circles, but I have noticed that a majority of these same writers and artists are from comfortable middle or upper middle class families, this seems to be the case with just about all the artists and writers you may have heard of. From Pablo Picasso to Henry Miller to Leonora Carrington to just about every novel ever published in the United Kingdom, middle or upper middle class backgrounds, sometimes with wealthy patrons, such as their partners. And of course these same middle or upper middle class artists recognise each other, in terms of the content of their writing, it is familiar, the cocktail parties and fancy dinners and luxury travel or temporary slumming, they recognise the lives they are writing about, they network and keep the game in motion, publish books, receive awards, review each others work and call it universal human values. Of course, this is not to say that because the majority of art we may know in the world is from middle or upper class folks it is less valuable, or less interesting, but rather we are doing ourselves a disservice by not allowing for other voices in the arts, from other classes. It is a kind of poverty of the imagination. Art requires leisure and money or patronage, and if you don’t have those, you die, or just give up, or maybe you continue creating, somehow, if you are lucky.
Do I feel more virtuous having less money, more artistic and authentic? It seems that narrative, at least in part, comes from a kind of romantic vision of the middle class artist, temporarily slumming it, in Paris or wherever, like Hemingway and the so-called Lost Generation, and the wealthy aristocratic poets before them. All fine and well and interesting, but again, it is a very different situation without a safety net.
Maybe I can live simply, but more comfortably, with more money, without becoming a hungry monster, without attaching myself to the chasing of money, if I can somehow acquire a more permanent teaching position, or change professions, & overcome various barriers, such as ageism, maybe I can live more comfortably. Maybe there is a middle way with money. But how much is enough? I don’t want to become a hungry middle class monster, or lose what I need for my psychological survival, the creation of my art. Maybe that is what I associate with middle class: suffocation in overly sanitised environments and the killing of my creativity. But maybe there are other options. I hope so.