The Buffalo freegans profiled by Jake Halpern in this NYT magazine piece from a few weeks ago seem like a case for some Kranton-Akerlof identity economics, the basic concepts of which are well presented in this review by Tom Slee.
Freegans purport to be proud freeloaders off the wasteful consumer society: they are “dedicated to salvaging what others waste and — when possible — living without the use of currency,” Halpern writes. Yet the identity is a fragile facade, and not merely because it is incoherent, as Halpern explains: “Freegans maintain that by salvaging waste, they diminish their need for money, which allows them to live a more thoughtful, responsible and deliberate existence. But if they succeed in their overriding goal, and society ends up becoming less wasteful, the freegan lifestyle will no longer be possible.” The freegan identity, in the case that Halpern covers in the article, relies on institutional support that masks the way they actually help the society they profess to scorn.
The freegans’ oppositional identity is something that can be factored in, game theory style, by institutional agents when dealing with them and trying to orient them toward helping contribute to the system they think they are leeching off of. That is, freegans want to provide useful services to the existing economy, but only if it makes them feel like outcasts from that economy. Their practices can only produce the outsider identity they hope for with the help of some ideologically oriented playacting from the broader establishment:
Eventually, one of the city’s “board-up crews,” which seal off abandoned homes, discovered the squatters and reported them to Judge Henry Nowak at the city’s housing court…. He was approached by a group of neighbors who lived near the mansion. They said they wanted to discuss the squatters. To the judge’s astonishment, the neighbors praised the young people, saying that they had kept the thieves, drug dealers and arsonists away. What’s more, they attested, the squatters were fixing up the place, making it less of an eyesore. Their presence, and the fact that the mansion was now occupied, had made it easier for people on the block to get homeowners’ insurance. Odd as it seemed, the freegan kids helped stabilize the neighborhood, and the concerned neighbors wanted them to stay. “They said, ‘Don’t you dare kick those kids out of the house!’ ” Judge Nowak told me.
After this encounter, the judge found himself in a difficult situation. “I was left with two options essentially,” he told me. “One would be to put the house in receivership, where I would tell all of these children that if they want to stay, they have to now pay rent.” This option was problematic, Nowak said, because the squatters were “enamored with the fact that they moved into a house that wasn’t theirs,” and given their freegan sensibilities, they would not consent to paying rent. Or, Judge Nowak explained, “I could essentially let things stay as they are and trust that the children are going to make the repairs to the property.”
For the time being, the judge decided to let the squatters stay. “It was a close call,” he told me. “It was an awfully close call.”
The freegans had basically embraced the quintessential bourgeois ethos of property improvement and had only a veil of radicalism to prevent themselves from recognizing that. Insiders—the bourgeois neighbors—had to try to accommodate the freegans’ outsider status to continue to reap the benefits of their dirty work. Eventually they had to buy into the system overtly:
The squatters had already paid off back taxes and were paying utility bills — not the most orthodox of freegan practices — but, as they saw it, they were still beating the system. Ownership would, arguably, catapult them into the ranks of propertied classes.
“Many of us in the house see the whole system of private property as being something that oppresses people,” Tim said. “And if we owned the place, suddenly we’d be the ones kicking people out or the ones calling the cops.” But, in the end, Tim said, ownership was “a necessary step to keep the project alive.”
The obvious question at that point is, What does the “project” consist of? Is it still a freegan project, or has it evolved into an experiment in cooperative living within the institutions of consumer capitalism? It seems to me that freegan identity is probably a liability that prevents the more widespread acceptance of such experiments that might actually alter the institutions of capitalism for the better. But is there a way to motivate individuals to participate in such projects without baiting the hook with the promise of a oppositional, self-aggrandizing identity?
The complexity of that problem—how to cultivate people who want to live in a “community economy” without their being stuck in capitalism’s model of individuality—is evoked in this introduction to J.K. Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), which is a condensation of A Postcapitalist Politics by the same author. Freeganism could potentially reveal alternatives to capitalism, alternative subject positions to inhabit (i.e. a different way to go about living, with entirely different guiding values and principles), but only if it abandons an ideology that is parasitical upon capitalism and emphasize instead communal approaches to production, consumption, distribution, and subjectivity—reorganizing the sorts of markets we have and the sorts of people we become when we inhabit them.
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