by Gilles d'Aymery
"When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical may be madness. To surrender dreams, this may be madness. To seek treasures where there is only trash. . . Too much sanity may be madness, and maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be."
—Miguel De Cervantes
(Swans - November 2, 2009) Ever since we began asking for financial help in 2005, as Swans needed to either become a reader-supported independent publication or try to turn into a commercial endeavor with advertising galore and different content (which we could not fathom to do) or simply fold down (neither could we fathom), we have been advised by many readers and well-wishers to set up an account with PayPal -- a step that we have persistently resisted...until today.
From the day Swans was launched in May 1996 we've always operated with two aphorisms in mind. "The only way not to play a game is to not play"; and "attempting to solve problems using the tools, techniques, and thoughts which create them is silly" -- both came from our good friend Milo Clark. (Albert Einstein once said something similar: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.") In this vein, we've always tried to think out of the box and, while fully aware of the socioeconomic system in which we live, we've been using as seldom as possible the most flagrantly destructive and exploitative tools that the system uses to enrich its elites, impoverish the masses, and gut local communities. Anyone who's familiar with the publication cannot miss our long-time advocacy in favor of local businesses, community banks, labor unions, etc. A careful look at the front page of Swans should make it plain and simple. We've consciously chosen to stay away from big boxes and megastores, as well as to the extent possible the financial markets including the dreaded credit cards. In that context, PayPal, a wholly-owned subsidiary of e-Bay (which we have never used), was an instrument that deserved to be utterly shunned, as the company makes huge profits on the backs of people who use it for their own "convenience."
So, every time a reader recommended that we take a PayPal account we kept responding with the same explanation: As we do not want to shop at Amazon, or Home Depot, or Wal*Mart, etc., we wish to avoid PayPal -- and we kept asking instead that contributions be sent by check, cash, or money order, to sadly little avail. Most people who recommended PayPal would not hear our request, and quite possibly would not agree with our reasoning, which might appear too quixotic and stubborn.
Swans Commentary now has a PayPal account.
What made us take this step with dire reluctance?
First of all, we are desperate -- or perhaps should I write, "I am desperate" -- to cover at least the operating costs of the publication. Jan Baughman, my companion and wife, has been sustaining this endeavor and supporting me through her work and sacrifices (and her devoted editing help). Both financially and emotionally it is taking a toll on me. Moreover, the lack of overall revenues forces us to call upon our modest savings year after year (except in 2007, when a reader from England put us over the top with an amazingly generous $2,000+ donation) and forbids us from developing Swans. The publication depends on a bevy of intriguing, talented, and thoughtful contributors, none of whom we can afford to compensate financially -- and, evidently, the lack of resources prohibits us from attracting a wider pool. (As Jeff Huber wrote to me recently: "If you ever reach the point where you can pay for exclusive content, I'll be more than delighted to write it for you." Of course, Jeff is not in the solidarity "business," but he sure is a good writer...on the libertarian side of the chessboard.)
Second, money orders do not work. Last year, Walter Trkla, a reader from Canada who's followed Swans ever since the unjustified, illegal, and brutal air war against Serbia in 1999, sent a US$100 check drawn on a Canadian bank. Our credit union (Redwood Credit Union) refused the check, alleging that it was not drawn in bona fide USD. We went back and forth over a few weeks. Every time I had to address the issue, I also had to drive back and forth 25 miles to the nearest branch. (One year earlier, Walter had sent me C$100, suggesting that since the Canadian dollar was higher than the USD, I would get a larger cut. It cost me (and Walter) a fee of $25 and they credited me for only $75 -- not taking into account the spread between the two currencies.) So, I eventually gave up and told Walter: "Look let's forget about it. Next time do send me a money order drawn in USD." He just did that this year (2009), taking the trouble to go to his bank and make sure it was a USD money order. Yet, when I tended the money order to the teller, once again it was disputed. Yes, it was in USD, but it was drawn from a foreign (Canadian) bank. I felt so darn embarrassed that I paid the $25 fee and did not let Walter know. In the eye of the capitalist beast, a local community bank cannot figure out the international banking system. I once asked a teller there, in Ukiah, Mendocino County, California, if she knew anything about the Euro. Her answer: "Euro? What is that?" To say the least, money orders are an expensive proposition!
Third, a reader from Sofia, Bulgaria, in Eastern Europe, sent an e-mail telling me that he wanted to send some money our way. Problem was, he had not written a check in ten years, had no US$ bills in his possession, and could not send a money order. He recommended: "Get yourself a PayPal account. Très facile. I'll send you 50 bucks." Thinking -- erroneously, as it turned out -- that he was a young man, I answered that I was in the process of getting a PayPal account, adding: "You know: I am getting real old, because I pay by check or in cash for all my expenses. I have only one credit card and use it at the very most 5 or 6 times a year." He answered:
Quand vous êtes dans le ventre de la bête, vous devez manger ce que la bête se nourrit. [When you are in the belly of the beast, you must eat the beast's food.]
PS: Je suis aussi vieux. 76 ans. Mais je dispose de 20 cartes de crédit, et de nombreux comptes en ligne. [I am old too. 76. But I use 20 credit cards and have numerous on-line bank accounts.]
Whether he was facetious regarding the number of credit cards and on-line bank accounts is beside the point. A 76-year-old reader was telling a youngster (I'm 59) to go on with life as it is (not as it should be).
Which is what various other friends and contributors have kept telling me, the latest being my brother from Africa, Femi Akomolafe. He wrote me:
My Yoruba people are very practical people. Among our wise saying is: omo ina la nra sina. Literally it means that you send a message to the devil via its offspring. I don't think that you should hate yourself for using PayPal to keep doing the great job you and Jan are doing editing and publishing Swans.
But the one who broke the camel's back has been Mark Lause, an assistant professor of history at Cincinnati University, a once-contributor to our publication, a third-party political activist in the Marxist tradition, and a member of and almost daily contributor to the Marxmail list owned and maintained by another Swans friend and contributor, Louis Proyect.
Mark too suggested that I set up a PayPal account. I responded with my usual argumentation regarding not using greedy capitalist instruments of alienation drowned in consumerism. His answer stunned me. He wrote that he regularly shopped at Amazon and its used bookseller's site; that he bought stuff from e-Bay and other online companies; that he made trips to the Home Depot or Lowe's when in need; and that he bought almost everything his family ate at a local supermarket chain (whether it's Wal*Mart or another big box, Mark did not specify).
I did not condemn or disparage him. I wrote back: "I suppose I need to learn from your realism and stop battling the windmills..." I added: "Still, I don't know how humanity will ever get rid of the beast if we keep feeding it on the one hand and keep drinking its poisonous milk on the other hand (sorry, I can't get the right metaphor...)."
Mark is much more of a politically engaged activist than Jan and I ever have been and shall ever be. The struggle on behalf of the have-nots has been, to my sentiment, his life-long calling. Far from my mind would be one iota of criticism. What our exchange taught me is that Jan and I could not be more royalist than the king, more Marxist than Marx, or more secular humanist -- which is what the two of us really are -- than Einstein. A decent, sensible, well-educated professor was telling us that it's okay to shop at the big stores and get a PayPal account. Not that it was the right thing to do but that one had to face reality. Actually, Mark added with his usual sense of humor, "Certainly, if I had my druthers, I would get what I need through a Labor-for-Labor exchange at the UtopiaMart, but we haven't had one readily available in this corner of Ohio since Josiah Warren picked up and moved to New York."
Mark was convincing enough and I thank him for blowing a stream of reality in the direction of my windmill -- and I thank everybody else who made us move on, if even reluctantly.
Let me conclude with two quick thoughts.
Mentioning education, both Jan and I are reasonably educated but we are not prone to debating all the theoretical angels that crowd the head of the legendary pin. We do not discuss the merits of one revolutionary versus the other. We have no interest in telling how the world should be run according to theory A, B, C, D, E, F, all the way to Z. Both of us, from early childhood on, have dealt with mere practicalities. We were pressed to act thus due to our respective -- yet different -- childhoods, which has kept us attuned to the difference between declared actions and revealed actions. Boardroom members of these mega companies are more susceptible to notice revealed actions and laughingly disregard the declared ones. In other words, to rail against these bloodsuckers but use their goods and services is a zero-sum game.
The choice is neither UtopiaMart nor Wal*Mart for it's a false choice (since there's no UtopiaMart). The choice is between family-owned businesses and the big boxes, between your local hardware store or lumberyard and Home Depot or Lowe's. The former do have a positive impact on the communities in which they are located. They meet their payroll, reinvest their profits in the community, pay their share of taxes, etc. The latter mostly exploit their work force, often get local or state subsidies to open their big stores, compete unfairly with the local businesses, and do send all profits far away from the locations in which they were made. There is, of course, an objection that is thrown at us invariably: It's easy to act accordingly when one can afford it, implying that we have the financial means to choose as we do. But this is a totally erroneous argument. Studies after studies have demonstrated that shoppers end up spending more money in the big boxes than in smaller stores because of multiple purchases on impulse. People end up buying much more than what they intended. The attractiveness of lower prices can be quite deceptive, indeed!
Finally, here is a long-time wish of mine. There are legions of smart people with great expertise who abhor our current state of affairs. Can't we band together and figure out a way to create a not-for-profit SocialPal that would serve the same purpose as PayPal -- facilitate electronic payments -- in a civic-minded fashion? Over the years, I've looked for an affordable alternative that services people and organizations without a legal non-profit status -- known in the U.S. as 501(c) tax-exempt, "educational organizations." Never found one. Such an organization would truly be a game changer. One cannot challenge capitalism without offering a practical alternative and providing a series of tools to be used outside of the formal channels forced upon all by the current system.
Again, "attempting to solve problems using the tools, techniques, and thoughts which create them is silly."
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