A Really Really Free Market on Earth Day: Thoughts on Value, Labor and Material Culture in Late Capitalism

This Earth Day, I organized a Really Really Free Market and DIY Skill Share at my small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. RRFMs are one of my favorite events to plan because they are really really free and really really easy to organize – and really really radical.

The idea is simple: folks bring any clothes and things they don’t want anymore and that others could use to one location, and anyone can take anything for free. No bartering. Take what you need, give what you can. People can also offer or take advantage of skills or services, like haircuts, stick and pokes, sewing, crafts, kombucha brewing – anything. RRFMs are an immediate — and fun — way to reclaim public space, reaffirm collectivity, create accountability for collective wellbeing and celebrate the abundance of each other and the world around us.

Gift economies have existed for as long as there have been human cultures, but the first Really Really Free Markets were thought to have emerged sometime in the 1990’s as a way to counteract capitalism and protest free trade. There’s often music, art and a festive atmosphere, making it a great event for college campuses, and in cities around the world.

So much of American social culture is already based around material culture, for better or for worse. Liberal environmental discourse tends to target individual consumer choices, vesting moral weight into each choice we do or don’t make. This tells the important story of how our fossil fuel system, based on what feminist scholar bell hooks terms the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, is designed to commit violence against people and the planet.

But it’s not the only story we have about our things, and consumer guilt is not the same as accountability. At RRFMs, people exchange more than things. We can move on from individualizing the problem to rethinking needs in a way that benefits the common good, limiting carbon emissions and helping us appreciate what we do already have.

At this weekend’s RRFM, I gave away some miscellaneous flannels I never wore, and picked up a pair of black jeans I made into cut-off shorts. It felt good to know someone else could use what I didn’t need anymore.

Clothing is of course only one part of the picture, but it says a lot about how we think about ourselves and resources around us. According to the World Resources Institute, the $3 trillion global apparel industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, and is also the second largest industrial polluter after oil. The clothing industry also hinges on socially conditioning us to “buy, buy, buy” the new thing, and to support this habit, we have to work long hours, often at jobs we don’t enjoy. The premise that someone’s economic, social or cultural value depends on monetized labor is violence. It excludes many people with disabilities who can’t perform certain kinds of labor, and it pits us against each other in thinking selfishly rather than collectively. It fundamentally goes against the first principle of Unitarian Universalism, that everyone has inherent worth and dignity.

Our paid labor is not the only labor that matters. RRFMs also create a space that recognizes all the different ways people contribute to society, whether or not their work directly increases profit, or can even be measured monetarily.

Someone was drawing portraits at the RRFM, and I hung out with friends, helping one of them process a breakup. Art is cultural work, with the transformative power of creating meaning for the artist and audience, and listening is emotional labor – exchanges that aren’t compensated the same way as other forms of labor, but that contribute just as much to a sense of community.

Being on a college campus, I often hear my friends say things like “I wasn’t very productive today”. But where does this incessant pressure to be “productive” come from anyway? I realized what we are really saying is that our labor that day didn’t contribute directly to capitalism or wasn’t able to be commodified as value in the system. So I started challenging my friends by reminding them that I’m sure they were “productive” in other ways.

When we take money out of the equation, we decide what things are really worth. Really Really Free Markets are, to me, one small picture of what Revolution can look like. When we talk about revolution, we often talk about Liberation with a big L. Revolution can also – and must – happen in our daily interactions, our ways of moving through the world. RRFMs create space for a certain kind of civil ethic, a material engagement that goes beyond the thrill of finding a great new shirt, or exactly the kind of shoes you were looking for. It is a mutual exchange of different kinds of resources, a way to coexist without competition.

I want to live in a world where people get the resources they need, where food, housing and health care are rights, not privileges. Where we recognize everyone has something to offer simply by being there, and doesn’t need to prove their worth through producing – or buying – anything. Where life is shared out in the open.

If we know we need to consume, and we know that everyone has something to offer, that means there must be a way to exchange goods and services in a non-exploitative way. I don’t know what it looks like yet; that’s something we need to figure out together. But I do know there’s plenty to go around.

Amelia Diehl
Amelia Diehl
Amelia Diehl is the Network Coordinator for the UU Young Adults for Climate Justice Network, and a Communications Specialist for UU Ministry for Earth. She's been with UUMFE since 2015 and is based in Chicago and the Great Lakes region. Her other movement homes include Rising Tide Chicago, SustainUS and freelance writing.