Economic Citizenship: The Politics of Handknitting


If America is to survive, We the People must rediscover how to be We the People. Which means: citizens. Which means: responsible members of this civilization. Which means: citizenship is more than a legal status and a set of rights and entitlements. It requires living and acting responsibly in the political, economic, social and cultural realms that, several generations of so-called social scientists to the contrary, cannot be separated.

That's why I knit. It makes me a better economic citizen, and therefore a better citizen of my polity, society and culture. A better citizen of my country. A responsible economic citizen lives by the principle (to borrow from Lincoln): "As I would not be exploited, so I would not be an exploiter."

Knitting exemplifies this principle in action. So let's ponder the political economy of knitting.

Not the economics of knitting. For too many generations, economics has preached and preened that it is a "value-free" science and that all that matters are the workings of something called "the market." Over the last few months, if we've learned nothing else, it's that "the market" can be a profoundly immoral place and that "the market made me do it" no longer avails as justification for predatory and destructive behavior.

So I knit. Those who've read Dickens' great novel of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, or have seen the classic film, recall the knitting ladies working their craft as the aristocrats rode the tumbrils to the guillotine. I'm not quite ready for an American reprise, this time with bankers and hedge fund managers in the carts, although it is a pleasant fantasy. My purpose here is to explain the connections between this ancient craft and our present dilemmas.

Changing the entire American economy to reflect the principle of productivity without the exploitation of other humans cannot happen overnight. What we buy, how we live, and our thoughts about these things must precede and drive changes in economic theory and law. As John Adams wrote, looking back from the year 1818, "The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations." (Please note that the modern formulation, winning "hearts and minds," reverses Adams' sequence. Maybe that's why our Revolution succeeded-the minds came before the hearts.) In the years before taking up arms, Americans lived as part of an empire that adhered to the then-reigning theory of mercantilism. The colonists' economic role was to furnish raw materials to Great Britain and purchased finished goods from that country. They were also told from whom they could and could not buy other items. Tea, for example. This was designed to keep Britain running a favorable trade balance against other European Powers. Since wealth was defined as specie, not economic productivity, and since trade was viewed as a zero-sum game, mercantilism made sense.

Except to the colonists. Whatever the benefits of being part of the British Empire, mercantilism meant that American money left the colonies, rather than circulating within them; it also meant perpetual indebtedness to the mother country. And it also meant that the colonists did not develop economically or intellectually by producing the finished goods that they needed, such as finely woven fabrics, or printed books. Those they had to buy from the mother country. Look familiar to you after your trip through the shopping mall? We export grain and import electronics, machinery, even cheap textiles. Our advantages in fields such as aerospace are rapidly eroding. If you factor out a couple other export categories, notably weapons and porn (read here, "popular culture") you discover that America has become something of a mercantile colony of Asia.

One American response to British mercantilism was that tea party in Boston Harbor. Another was a boycott of British manufactured goods. This was utterly unsuccessful in practical terms, because it went far beyond boycotting British hats (made from American beaver fur) and British tea to no longer having "extravagant" funerals or attending cock-fights, horse-races and the theater. However, the boycott did make the extremely important political point that the colonists did not exist to purchase British manufactures. At a deeper level, it tried to proclaim that the colonists didn't need extravagance and corrupting luxury. We were stronger than that.

Nor does America need extravagance and corrupting luxury-or endless cheap imported junk- today. But are we still stronger than all that?

For several decades now, there has been something of a movement to wean Americans away from mindless consumption. This movement has been visible in many ways. One was "Voluntary Simplicity," which asks people to determine what is enough, and stop there, another is Fair Trade, in which consumers refuse to pay the lowest price possible and instead pay prices that allow producers, usually peasants and small co-ops, to earn a living return on their products. Then there is Buying Local, as exemplified by patronizing local merchants from independent booksellers to farmer's markets and community supported agriculture.

Unfortunately, as too often happens with good ideas in America, much of this movement has been marred by a self-righteous style that gets in the way of the messages and by reduction to "I do this to feel good about myself" trivialization.

Just as bad, in their own way, are those who equate change with mere sacrifice, not with fundamental alterations intended both to save the future and improve the present. Some of these folks were (and are) apocalyptic environmentalists. Some were and are all-purpose America haters. And some, one suspects, would be just as happy to see the human race go extinct.

But we have sacrificed. We have sacrificed our industrial base and the millions whose jobs have been offshored, usually to countries whose environmental practices verge on ecocide.

The consolations of these millions of Americans were the cheap food, cheap clothing, cheap entertainment, and cheap consumer goods being crammed down their throats by the very corporations that had eliminated their jobs, made available to them at easy credit and usurious interest rates.

Then there was the price this sacrifice exacted upon our bodies and souls. Instead of offering a vision of an economy based upon the dignity and self-respect that is gained when one produces the beautiful, the useful and the true for oneself and others, at a just price and a fair wage, the anti-consumer movement typically offered nothing but rhetoric and scorn. But now we are at the dead end of the stupid and empty and, yes, cruel rhetoric. You can find plenty of it on boards at, say, The New York Times, but every one knows that it is morally and intellectually bankrupt. The buttons that people used to push have been disconnected, even if they haven't admitted it-yet. And we know, now, that when people talk about America's standard of living (as opposed to quality of life), it is only an attempt to keep us buying more cheap food designed to make us fat, thereby restricting our ability not only to move, but also to think, because thought literally depends upon the supply of oxygenated blood to our brains; more cheap clothing that reveals the indignity perpetrated upon our bodies in order to infuse us with shame; more coarsening and degrading entertainment meant to render us stupid; more psychoactive drugs meant to numb us out and medicalize our existential fear that this is the meaning to which our lives have been reduced.

And yet we also know that to save our Republic and the planet that is the only home of our species, we must change the way we live. We see glimmers that this is, indeed, possible. But we don't know how. We have been taught to think of ourselves as weak and passive, as consumers, not creators, and that choosing not to consume means a lesser life.

I invite you to say Goodbye to all that and simply join me in as profound an act of political subversion and rebellion as this country has seen since the Boston Tea Party.

I invite you to think about material wealth in terms of selection, not accumulation, and not about how cheap things are, but how beautiful and well-made they are. I invite you to consider what it means to knit and, male or female, to consider taking it up.

Put away your stereotypes of old ladies knitting baby booties because they have nothing else with which to fill their days. Abandon also all thought of the cheap, fuzzy acrylic stuff you can find at Wal-Mart. When you hold a fine textile in your hand-from a great tapestry to a well-darned pair of trousers (darning was often a decorative expression of technical skill, as well as extremely useful)-you are holding civilization. When you knit a textile-from a warm and comfortable sock to an intricately cabled or colorworked sweater to the most ethereal lace shawl or christening robe-you are adding to civilization and contributing to its maintenance. You do so, not only by the actual act of making something that is attractive and functional, but by acquiring, exercising and quite quickly adding to the knowledge to do so. You can also end up with something amazing.

The start-up costs are very low, a single pair of needles and a skein or two of yarn. The learning curve is very short. If you deliberately set out to learn something new in each project (and I do), it takes very few projects before you are extremely technically accomplished and can make just about anything you please.

This leads us to the issue of the clothing you will make, because knitting is not about making endless potholders or miles of simple scarf. Nor is it a practical therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder, although it should not be discounted for that purpose. It is about making clothing, which is more than simply a covering for our nudity and a protection against cold and heat, wet and thorns. What we wear says two things about us: what we think of ourselves when we buy it and wear it, and what the manufacturer, be it a giant corporation or a master seamstress, thinks of its customers and suppliers. At all scales of production, those who respect their labor and their customers do not produce the cheap garbage whose production has destroyed indigenous textile industries all over the developing world and here, wears out after a few months, and clogs our landfills. Someone who respects herself or himself does not dress in a slovenly or sluttish manner; if we respect our producers, we pay a living wage, a just price.....

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