by Jeff Tangel
The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor. –Voltaire
. . . and the working, and middle classes. –Tangel
In the comic hit movie, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Mike Myers’s Fat Bastard character—who, as you might expect is always hungry—turns to Mini-me and demands, in his bellowing mock-Scottish bravado, “I’m bigger than you—and higher up the food chain. Get in my belly!” And then licks his chops while singing, “I want my baby back . . . baby back, baby back . . . ribs.”
Perhaps this is a telling example of being utterly absorbed in, and deeply confused by one’s worldview. Mini-me simply scoots away of course, ironically into the loving arms of Dr. Evil, leaving Fat Bastard un-sated, yet nevertheless deliriously full of himself.
Despite appearances—and our hubris—we humans “on the top of the food chain” are actually the most dependent beings in existence—we rely on everyone and everything “below” us. Author Michael Pollan’s lengthy and eye-opening essay for the NYT Magazine, “Some of My Best Friends are Germs,” reveals to us that we humans are, in reality, a mere 10% ourselves. The other 90% is actually an ongoing project of other beings, primarily bacteria and microorganisms going about their business.
But for them we’d be nearly-nothing.
So what sense does it make to imagine ourselves at the top of anything? Don’t we ordinarily think of dependent beings at some sort of bottom? The child and the invalid are dependent on their caretakers. So too are we humans dependent on the entire structure of ecology—which, as we are just beginning to understand, includes not just the flora and fauna all around us, but other people too. Perhaps we can understand Max Ehrmann’s line from the Desiderata in a new way.
“You are a child of the universe . . . ” indeed.
And wealth works similarly, reflecting in parallel the imagined hierarchy we impose on Nature. The wealthy hallucinate, seeing themselves as independent, as above everyone else. But in reality, the wealthy are wholly dependent on all of the people “below” them, from their own workers to the teachers who educated those workers, to the people who maintain and operate buildings, the means of transportation, systems of exchange, and so on, and on and on . . .
The wealthy are utterly dependent on the entire infrastructure of nature/culture—they are dependents—more so than any other economic strata. Think about this. Please.
The wealthy are not inter-reliant; the wealthy are held aloft by the compliance and work and servitude of others—some of whom they pay, or exploit, or from whom they simply receive unacknowledged and unearned benefits. Yet many strut about the world, full of themselves, like Fat Bastard(s), as if they fashioned it all from their own hands.
Thus, shouldn’t we think of the wealthy as residing at the bottom of our society? And therefore, shouldn’t they be treated just like many of them treat the poor?
Of course I’m just having fun. We certainly can’t cure dystopia with the “technologies” that created it. We need to treat the rich the way most of us try to treat the poor: we help them because we feel for them. I know, I’m asking a lot. But most of us are chock-full of empathy—plenty to go around—even if it doesn’t show that often. For me, the older I get—the more I’ve seen—the more I cry, as if the world has been waiting for me to notice.
We need to dismantle the illusory hierarchy that encourages destructive arrogance, leaving the wealthy empathically poor and all of us poorer, so we can welcome them into human inter-dependency. As Thict Nhat Hanh might say, such a generous and compassionate act could bring multiple benefits, to those helping as well as to those helped. Who knows how far that wind may blow?
How do we help the wealthy and ourselves at the same time? We refuse to participate in their charade. We drop out of their hierarchically structured economy-world and build a new world that acknowledges our relational dependence on each other and all others; the whole nature/culture shebang. To start, this may take the form of public banking, co-ops and so on, but we can’t limit ourselves to economics. We need a new way to live, one that recognizes our inter-relational dependence.
Fortunately, the world is a rich place for ideas. But to unlock real creativity and enable a critical and kinetic mass, first we have to be unchained from the hegemony of imagined hierarchy. We have to begin to see more clearly. Start with this:
Humans are the most dependent beings, and the wealthy are the most dependent humans.
The older I get the more I come to understand that reality is the opposite of the proffered convention—because the profferers of convention have a vested interest in keeping the world structured just so. The poor suffer a lack of justice, which is what Voltaire meant when he said: The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.
But willful poverty—call it minimalism if you like—as both a personal and political act, is something to be achieved. Or better, it is something to be created, with others, as one might make art from detritus. Finding satiety for yourself, and providing satiety for others, is a means and ends united; the wholeness of the individual secure in the inter-reliance of the community of beings. Think of this as an emancipating intervention, a reclaiming of justice by refusing to aid and abet the accumulators—the wealthy—and heal them, and us, at the same time.
Free from the servitude that feeds Fat Bastard, the willful poor weaken him and are empowered to seek authentic concert with the world—real relationships with each other and the ecosystem—and thereby change the world.
This won’t be easy. Begin with the dismantling of illusory hierarchy that is itself a direct cause of suffering and planetary degradation.
Jeff Tangel is an Adjunct Professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, an Associate of DePaul’s Institute for Nature and Culture, and a regular contributor to Environmental Critique. His individual blog is The Tecumseh Project. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
 Some of My Best Friends are Germs, Michael Pollan, NYT Magazine May 15, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the-100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 accessed June 13, 2013
- New York Times: https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/04/voting-in-and-out-monopoly-games-faux-riche/?_r=0
- Richelle Gribble, Intertwined-4: http://richelle-gribble.com/interdependent/
- David Friedman, The Holy Palace: http://www.kosmic-kabbalah.com/holy-palace