Put aside justice, stability and security, the little creature comforts that we all deserve, or finally paying your bills without a knot twisting in your stomach—then maybe the greatest pleasure in landing a living wage job is getting to be generous with your money, no questions asked.
For years before the pandemic, I joined some friends every week at our local dive bar. The place had recently started climbing up in the world. Gone were the low wooden booths, taxidermied bucks, and sepia tones, replaced instead with high-top tables and garish school colors in a bid for the local college crowd. We’ve been grumbling about the changes ever since. But the bar hadn’t changed as much as the paint scheme tried to imply. I mean that it was still kind of a dump. The bathrooms only grew smaller after the renovation, while their unfinished beige and gray concrete interiors sharply clashed with the new décor in the rest of the bar. And the buckets collecting water from the leaking ceiling still lurked along the room’s edges and corners—multiplied, actually.
We loved the place and still do. There, as we huddled around a table and a few rounds, I realized the joy of “standing” some drinks. Someone would ask, “What does everyone want?” Sometimes the question only took the form of an arched eyebrow and pointing finger. We always did this. After I finally started a job that paid me a living wage, though, I recognized how good it feels to stand a round. Less like an outward sign of what’s in my bank account and more like the freedom to act the way I had always intended, now without the stress or guilt. What could be better than having a little extra and sharing it with others?
I had my realization about the pleasures of standing a drink, but if we want to be sober about it, we could just as easily think of the many times friends treat each other to coffee, a meal, or anything else. Or we might include sharing some cash or food with houseless neighbors asking for help. Or imagine the big stuff: helping folks out with the rent or medical bills, opening up our homes for someone to stay in until they get back on their feet, or even giving away the spare car. Dean Spade, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and countless radicals have written about or practiced not just generosity but the radical act of mutual aid, which at its best builds the power of the people. Sitting around some drinks and bullshitting with my friends, I realized in a visceral way what every communist and anarchist has always known: that life is better when we hold the stuff of life in common.
For that reason I sometimes think that fuzzy math is for the working class while close accounting belongs to the rich. Maybe I’m justifying my own poor numeracy—math was always my worst subject in school. But the words of a fellow worker stick with me. During one of my periodic stints as a dues-paying member of the Industrial Workers of the World, I enjoyed a night out with some other Wobblies. When it came time for our table to settle up, someone was short, probably because we were in a cash bar. Another Wob stood the drinks. In the face of embarrassed thank yous, the “stander” explained that the most well off people they’ve ever known were also the most scrupulous record-keepers when it came to what friends owed. But as this Wob put it, working class and even poor people were the most willing to just float you the money. If it came around that the favor could someday be returned, then so much the better.
In Capital, Marx reads Daniel Defoe’s classic 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe as one of capitalism’s founding myths. Shipwrecked on an island, the “good Englishman” sets about claiming everything he sees as his own, then organizes and standardizes it all. Luckily for him, he saved from the wreck “a watch, ledger, ink and pen.” Able to closely notate time and materials, Crusoe can use everything on the island to the fullest. The Englishman becomes a careful bookkeeper. And the bookkeeper innovates the island for exploitation. The first edition’s title page declares the novel to be Crusoe’s personal “Account,” presumably in the sense of a narrative. But an “account” can also be a ledger or even an act of “accounting.”
More and more, we’re pushed to tally every friendly gesture like little Robinson Crusoes. No record book or pen needed, though. Aided by an arms race of smartphone apps, we can track each “transfer” we make down to the last cent. When your debtors—excuse me, friends—fall behind on payments, you can always send an electronic “request” for the missing funds. Going out suddenly resembles going to the bank. The convenience and novelty of these apps obscure how they help transform our friendships using the logic of the ledger. Reminded of the soulless new paint scheme and half-hearted trendiness of our neighborhood dive, I have to ask, Where’s the fun in that?
At the same time that capital is turning us all into petty debt collectors, the state is getting ready to shake me down for student loan payments too. Like other debt relationships, from Southern sharecropping to medical debt, student loans extort money from the working class, guaranteeing an almost perpetual extraction of wealth from below. That’s the historical horror of the modern science of bookkeeping: the watch and ledger standardize, record, and thus guarantee our exploitation. And as the little bit we have vanishes into thin air—or rather is taken from us by threat of force—we risk being robbed of simple pleasures like standing friends a drink without worry.
Squeezed on either side by debt collectors, whether big or small, we might feel like we can’t afford such generosities. But sharing is a joy—and a weapon. Even when money gets tight, I hope I’ll remember my Wob comrade’s words as an injunction not to turn capital’s ledger-keeping back onto others, to enjoy what I have with friends or houseless neighbors or anyone in need. Nothing is too good for workers or the world’s oppressed. Not a drink, some nice food, or the simple pleasure of giving what you have. Everyone deserves everything, including the freedom to share it.