Dollar Dollar Bill? (Economics and Ujamaa)

Since I went to business school, and since I just spent some time rapping with Khalilah and Khalya about how we need to figure out resisting some unfettered global capitalism, I’m going to spend a few minutes this morning discussing one of those Nguzo Saba Principles: “cooperative economics,” or “Ujamaa”.

First stop: economics.

Like many things you learn in B-school, economics is one of those consultant type words that somehow mean both everything and nothing at the same time.

Economics is fundamentally about resource allocation, how do we decide on the most effective use of our resources.

Home economics, for example, is about the best use of resources in a home, how to grow and cook food, how to make and mend clothes, etc.—sounds useful, right? Ever wonder why there’s no home ec in schools any more? It probly has something to do with the way that companies like General Mills and Kelloggs hired countless nutrition professors and graduates and turned them into “food scientists” after World War II. (Mostly because they needed to metabolize a bunch of left over nitrogen, but that will have to be a story for another day…)

Microeconomics is about how individual people and organizations make decisions about resources. Supply and Demand, consumer surplus, expenses, revenues, profits, assets, etc.

Macroeconomics is about how governments manage the system of resources of a whole country or region. GDP, taxation, spending, interest rates and central banking, etc.

What comes to your mind when I say economics?


Math and stuff?

If you are like most people, “economics” probably brings to mind one thing right away:

Especially if you live in a place that’s as expensive as where I live, you probably feel that pressure to gather those dollar dollar bills on the daily. EVERYTHING around me…

Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll see that money isn’t really as ‘real’ as you might think. In modern economies (like ours), money has no intrinsic value, it is just fancy paper with a wholely meaningless government promise that it is good for paying off any debts, public or private.

I know I already posted this a few weeks back, but:

Image result for Obomsawin quote

Perhaps in keeping with my Wu Tang reference, it can be put a different way:

There are places where TB is common as TV
‘Cause foreign-based companies go and get greedy
The type of cats who pollute the whole shore line
Have it purified, sell it for a dollar twenty-five
Now the world is drinkin it
Your moms, wife, and baby girl is drinkin it
Up north and down south is drinkin it
You should just have to go to your sink for it
The cash registers is goin “cha-chink!” for it
Fluorocarbons and monoxide
Got the fish lookin cockeyed
Used to be free now it cost you a fee
‘Cause it’s all about gettin that cash money

Yasiin Bey

On some level, we all understand that money is not the most important resource or asset that we have. What exactly would we do if we polluted all our water, as the above warns, but we had lots of money?

Perhaps even more important than food or water, are the most precious of resources that we possess: our minds, the integrity of our values, and our fellow humans–but that is not what we are socialized to believe, let alone behave.

Alongside the part of us that knows that we cannot eat money, there is the part of us that knows that cash does, in fact, rule everything around us, and if we don’t keep pace with our own particular hamster wheel, hunger and want await us with crushing certainty.

I was having dinner with Lisa and our friend Cheri the other night, and we were talking about the stress of needing to find and/or keep work, and the joy that comes from the things that we haven’t yet figured out how to get people to pay us for yet. I shared with them a strange little story that I read in college, and that you might be familiar with.


Franz Kafka’s masterpiece, “The Metamorphosis,” has been grossing out undergrads for the last century or so, but most people who have heard of it don’t realize the fundamental economic message that underlies Kafka’s project. When Gregor Samsa wakes up and finds himself transformed into a horrific insect, his only thought is of how he has missed his train and will be late for work again, a soul depleting job as a traveling salesman. Everyone else in Samsa’s life is equally concerned about him being late for work, especially since he can’t explain himself to them–despite imagining himself as responding to their questions, his insect voicebox is not producing sounds that his family or nagging supervisor (who is now banging on his door yelling at him for being late) can hear. With very little acknowledgement of his fantastic transformation, Samsa amazingly settles into a new life as a giant insect, hiding under the bed so he doesn’t scare his sister, and listening in as his family takes on boarders to make up the lost income from his sudden unemployment. Finally, after months of being injured and reviled by his family (who doesn’t think he can understand them anymore), Gregor overhears them saying they would be better off without him, and he pretty much dies of a broken heart. Stunningly, his family is relieved and quickly moves on to finding a smaller apartment and a husband for their daughter.

Weird, right…

So how is this about economics exactly?

Well, check out how Marx describes it:

“The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation.”

For Kafka’s protagonist, every shred of his humanity has been removed long before he is turned physically into the lonely, dejected, and ball-of-anxiety worker bee that he has been all along. His health, his family, his friendships, even a little framed magazine clipping that is the closest thing he has to the creative spark that defines human beings (so much so that many of us believe they all reflect the image of some greater “creator”)–everything that makes him human has been taken away by his job, which provides enough money for his family to live on as long as he isn’t late and doesn’t complain about the tedious pointlessness of his work too much.

By the time I brought this one in for a landing, Lisa was tearing up at the thought of giving up so much just to make rent, an idea that she hates with a deep and painful passion. Why should anyone have to give up so much just to earn their bread, instead of being free to determine their own destiny?

What good is it if a man should gain the whole world, but forfeit their very soul?

This is the economic system that you and I were born into, the one that is marching double time toward consolidating ever more resources in the hands of a few.

It is the economic system that substitutes actual value for humans with paper money backed by the full faith and credit of a government that has always been set up of, by, and for the people who have the most money.

Even if that means 2AM votes on 500 pages deliberately constructed to push through and obfuscate the largest wealth transfer since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Because the gap shown in that video is not enough.

Don’t believe the vapid commentators howling at the moon about collusion with Russia, this heist is the real story that the Russia thing is meant to distract you from… Someone is counting on us to not really understanding their economic agenda.

Standing in opposition to this school of economic thinking is one of our core values at CREAD, one of the seven principles of the Nguzo Saba: Ujamaa.

Ujamaa is a Swahili word for the village that raises those kids, the “extended family” or ‘community’ that works together (co-labor-rates), takes ownership and manages together (co-operates), solves problems and invents solutions together (co-creates), and organizes and decides together to create power and resources (co-ordinates, “ordinare” is Latin for “ordering” or “organizing.”)

Ujamaa is economics, the allocation of scarce resources, ordered not by efficiency or by the whims of the most wealthy and powerful, but ordered by our membership in the  extended family of humanity.

In a way, Ujamaa is a return to the idea of home economics–it is family-centered in its approach to distributing resources optimally. It is the reversal of the dehumanization, alienation, and injustice that is forcing humans to compete with each other in a zero sum contest for the substance of their life, the food, water, housing, health care, education, and freedom–all of which are internationally recognized as fundamental human rights.

The key prerequisite for Ujamaa in an age of artificial scarcity and competition as a virtue is the ability to trust in some cooperative, in some extended family to back you up when you make the risky moves. Rather than seeing economic resources as the domain of individual agency and engines of  social mobility for a fortunate few, we must choose to see land, vehicles, equipment, businesses, and even our education and skills as the domain of our collective efficacy, and a means to end scarcity and competition for our extended family, first in our own households, and then in solidarity with our historically marginalized sisters and brothers and beyond.

May the resources of the Ujamaa allocate to you an economic abundance that is well beyond your imaginings, and the power within to sacrifice in solidarity until that abundance can reach everyone.

In justice and righteousness,


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