In the last couple years, the conversation around "belonging" as a social and political term has become more salient, sparking important debates around how it is used to interpret and imagine social change. The intersection of belonging and the economy is one where there are often varied and conflicting views. A common misunderstanding of the idea of belonging is that it means inclusion in the existing structures of society without fundamental change to those structures. When this definition of belonging is applied to economic conditions, it leads to equating belonging with being employed and having the income and wealth that make possible a thriving and materially enjoyable life. This type of economic well-being is no doubt part of what belonging in an economic system should mean. But, in my view, belonging goes much further than this. Belonging can anchor a narrative that weaves together diverse issues and visions for a new economy. This blog lays out four ideas about how belonging challenges existing economic structures and how it provides principles for imagining and designing alternative structures.
The first area where the notion of belonging can help us understand the fundamental problems with existing economic structures is related to place. Our current economic structures make belonging to a place extremely difficult for many communities across urban and rural geographies. The lived experience of Detroit and the many areas of the world where the people and place have been largely abandoned by capital investment is one of no longer belonging in the economy. For these communities, belonging to their place is almost untenable: remaining in their city means continuing to be cut off from the level of investment that makes a regional economy function. On the other side of this dynamic of capital flight are the areas where capital is being directed to concentrate, such as the San Francisco Bay Area. In these areas, the influx of capital is driving up the cost of living, and generating such inequitable income and wealth, that large numbers of working people, predominantly people of color, are being pushed out of their historic neighborhoods. Again, belonging to your place is not possible because of the structure of the economy. The legacy of, and continuing, racial exclusion in education, employment, credit, ownership, and other essential components of economic well-being concentrates these forces of displacement in communities of color. Losing your place can be a visceral and devastating experience - as our place often holds so much of the people we rely on and care about, the memories that shape our identity, and the resources that support our well-being.
The second area where belonging challenges the structure of the economy is in the inherent conflict between our current corporate capitalist economic system and human health and survival on planet earth. There is no more fundamental a basis for belonging than the ecological systems we rely on for water, soil, and air. How can we say we belong in this economy when it is undermining the possibilities for life of our species? At a more local scale, the places where industrial pollution and extraction have been so intense that a healthy life is almost impossible show us that our current economic structures rely on sacrifice zones where communities are treated as disposable. Places like Port Arthur, Texas, Richmond, California, and Flint, Michigan have been essential parts of the national economy but are also places where environmental health conditions have been so toxic for so long that it is difficult to understand how they are treated as anything but a sacrifice zone. In an economy where everyone belongs there would be no sacrifice zones or disposable communities, and the economy would enhance the ecological systems that all life depends on.
The third area is the way that belonging helps us understand the economy as a web of relationships of power. When we think about belonging as it relates to government, we more easily see the importance of people having the power to shape government decisions. But the dominant framework for understanding the economy is so absent a notion of power that we are less prepared to think about how belonging in the economy would shift how economic decision-making is governed, how economic power is arranged. The economy belongs to the people, just like the government, and should not be just managed by the elites. If everyone belonged in the economy, then there would be a form of economic democracy where decision-making about how to invest, how to employ, etc, would be made through a process in which workers, impacted communities, and others are powerfully engaged in governance.
The final area where belonging can help us reimagine economic structures is in the determination of value and what counts as work. An economy centered on belonging would value and guarantee the dignity of all work. If everyone belongs in the economy, then the work that we do must be honored and valued, whether we are farmers or artists or teachers or engineers or cooks. In some theories of capitalism, there comes a time when humans have been freed from work and can pursue any leisure or other activity we are drawn to. Rather than each person finding a way to fit into the work that is required by the economy, we are able to follow our dreams and desires. This is usually framed as "leisure," juxtaposed with "work." But if we leave behind this dichotomy, we can imagine an economy that compensates and supports the work that each person and community decides to do. We flourish not just in leisure, we flourish in work too. We should find creativity, community, and meaning in our work. Belonging here means that we have the freedom to decide what we do with our days, and the economic structures are designed to value and support that work. This may mean universal access to productive resources and wealth, such as in the vision of John Rawl's property-owning democracy. It would certainly mean an economic system that values all forms of human activity. If I paint a picture today, that is work. If I help a friend grieve and heal from a tragedy, that is work. If I develop a new product, or take my daughter to the park, or listen to my grandma's stories, that is all work.
When we understand belonging in its full depth, new horizons for imagining and creating our economic future arise. Rather than simply being included in structures that simultaneously undermine other forms of belonging, we seek to design structures that strengthen our connection to place, ensure thriving ecological systems and health, equitably distribute power, and value the dignity of all work.
Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Haas Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.