Growing up, my sister and I had no idea what our dad did for a living. As far as we could tell, when he wasn’t shuttling us to and from school and various music lessons or reading or listening to his vast collection of classical music CDs, he sat at his computer at home all day, in front of a spreadsheet that would occasionally emit noises that sounded an awful lot like “cha-ching!” Whenever we had to fill out forms listing our parents’ jobs, he would tell us, under “company,” to write “self-employed,” and under “occupation,” “investor.”
Every couple years or so, we’d ask him to explain how the stock market worked. Actually, we’d ask him to first explain what the stock market was. “Okay, but what exactly is a stock?” we’d press him, determined to nail down the details of this mysteriously slippery world once and for all. But his explanations never really stuck. We were looking for something concrete, some hard, specific reality to grab onto, and all we got were confusing ideas like “shares” and “fractions of a company.”
There were moments, reading Having and Being Had, Eula Biss’s new examination of capitalism and white middle class life, when I returned to this same childlike bewilderment and frustration. Capitalism is hard to talk about, built as it is upon abstractions, layer upon layer of universally accepted illusions that turn physical stuff and experiences—paper, a house, one’s education—into concepts like money and assets and capital. But instead of pinning down these floaty ideas, Biss seeks to explode them. Her book is full of wordplay and reversals, where consumption isn’t just the opposite of capitalist production but a disease, and a word whose Latin root conveys a sense of destruction.
Biss considers the difficulty of defining “rich” and “poor” and “middle class,” that notoriously fuzzy category; draws out the uncomfortable resonances of “possession” and “ownership” with slavery and self-delusion; and toys with the many meanings of the laden word “work.” (“Work, in fact, is interfering with my work, and I want to work less so that I can have more time to work,” she writes. “I need another word.”) The 88 pieces in Having and Being Had look like very short essays, but they’re more productively read as poems, operating as they do on the level of metaphor and recurring image. And yet, taken as a whole, they lack the precision and clarity that make good poetry so satisfying to read.
These pieces originated as diary entries, written after Biss and her husband bought a house in Chicago in 2014, when she began recording the moments she felt uncomfortable in her new, comfortable, middle class life. “I was sure that my discomfort had something to teach me, and that I would lose some essential knowledge if I let go of the discomfort,” she writes. Indeed, some pieces in the book have the flavor of diligently recorded field notes. Biss reads and quotes heavily from anthropological works by David Graeber and Elizabeth Chin, who study life under capitalism, as well as economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, and seems to aspire herself to write “a study of affluence.”
“Widespread poverty is not an anomaly. But widespread affluence is,” she writes, paraphrasing Galbraith. “And if we meet this new affluence with old ideas forged in poverty, we will misunderstand ourselves.” But her study is an associative, highly personal one, and it tackles the world of the middle class through Biss’s own experiences within it. Early on, she pores over paint swatches and becomes obsessed with choosing the right shade of white for her living room, which morphs into a clever sendup of white middle-class attitudes: “Matchstick, String, Cord, Skimming Stone. These are not aspirational whites—these whites can afford to be modest. One is even called Blackened.”
Mostly, Biss finds, middle class life is one of contradiction and compromise, of being implicated in a system no one really understands, though those with money are shielded from most of its negative consequences. It’s characterized by moments when Biss feels one way and acts another, or is forced to “choose” between two options she doesn’t want. (Even the title of the book mirrors this move—ownership, we understand, is a sort of scam.) Biss recoils at the thought of investing her retirement savings in the stock market because she sees it as “a means of extraction,” but does so anyway: “I want nothing to do with this, I think. But I want to retire.” She resents the excess of owning a full Thanksgiving dining set—gravy boat, cheese plate, serving spoons and all—but they’re presented to her as necessities of a fully kitted-out middle class life. “I would gladly trade this gravy boat to quit my job,” she writes, “but I would also have to trade this house.” When her husband refuses to insure his life because he doesn’t want to buy their son “out of an uncertain future,” she quietly submits the forms to insure her own life instead. She also nods at—though doesn’t quite fully reckon with—her silent complicity as a gentrifier in a historically redlined area, interacting with her Black neighbors only glancingly and watching an eviction “the way I might watch bad weather—as if it has nothing to do with me.”
But Biss realizes quickly that while she may be a member of the middle class, she doesn’t feel like one; instead she feels like “a spy faking this life.” She doesn’t feel like the mother at the playground who complains about a shooting in their “safe” neighborhood or the silly, oblivious members of the local Woman’s Club or any of the sunscreen- and seatbelt-wearing members of “the middle-class cult of personal safety,” though her life is ostensibly just like theirs. Throughout the book there’s an ominous sense of dislocation, and the notion of passing keeps cropping up—Russian spies passing as Americans, people passing as middle class while skating precariously by on credit, Biss’s mother passing as a grateful office drone. “The spies are artists, I think, or anyone who lives inside a value system that isn’t their own,” Biss writes. And the shadowy, looming threat is, of course, capitalism.
Early on, Biss admits to a friend that she doesn’t know what capitalism is, and tells a neighbor that she’s still undecided about what it means to her. While we never really see her decide, we certainly get the sense that she’s decided how she feels about capitalism—mostly through a series of cartoonishly threatening metaphors. Biss imagines the lavish mansion she visits for a fundraiser spattered with blood, and describes one of her neighbors, a bank regulator who evicts the residents of a house involved in a shooting, as Dracula, his shadow “sending long fingers across the street.” Capitalism is like kudzu, or the “possession vine” she weeds out of her local elementary school’s garden: a totalizing value system that strangles others and leaves almost no space untouched. In a conversation about Pigouvian taxes ( taxes that make socially harmful commodities more expensive), Biss wonders, “could we tax capitalism itself?”
Biss asks the few economists she happens to meet at social gatherings to explain what capitalism is. It’s a system where one builds wealth by owning a means of production, they say, or a particular way goods and services can be exchanged. But here, Biss’s own explanation mostly takes the form of a dizzying array of quickly sketched examples: Capitalism encourages us to form relationships with objects instead of people; saving money (which Biss calls “hoarding”) is seen as morally upright because the country has no real safety net; the upper class used to live with servants, but now that all our labor has been outsourced to machines and invisible servants, we can imagine that we’re self-sufficient; the middle class worships personal safety above all else; working life is riddled with abusive relationships, from Biss’s own experiences as a graduate student with an amorous advisor to Mexican women farmworkers preyed upon by their supervisors. Neither approach—the economists’ nor Biss’s—is particularly satisfying. The economists’ explanation is too abstract, as always, and while Biss captures the lived reality of capitalism as it works today, the particulars are too particular. It’s hard to draw any conclusion more precise from them, all jumbled together, than that capitalism is bad.
Throughout, Biss channels a Bartleby-esque mood of generalized resistance by highlighting the stories of people who, she argues, actually resisted capitalism: There’s Vivian Maier, a photographer who worked as a nanny, negotiated her salary, asked for a lock on her door, kept the household’s copies of the New York Times for herself, and died on a park bench. There’s Emily Dickinson, who wrote “Don’t you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?” And then there are the women who were branded as witches as capitalism began to take hold in Europe.
In feudal times, Biss writes, quoting the work of political theorist Silvia Federici, women could own property and their work was considered work; under capitalism, their work just became producing babies. “Witches were old women who could no longer produce children, midwives who facilitated birth control, childless women who remained unproductive, loose women who refused to be held as property, and prostitutes who sold themselves,” she writes. The women who resisted capitalism were poor, participated in riots, set fields on fire and dug up the hedges that demarcated private property at night. It’s important to remember these historical examples, Biss argues, because they represent options that aren’t capitalism. Meanwhile Biss herself, in the present, carefully trims the hedge in front of her own house and feels guilty around her poorer neighbors, who “have an overgrown hedge, and no tools or time to trim it.”
But she resists, she suggests convincingly, in her teaching, and in the practice of making art. By teaching her students to value something that isn’t widely considered valuable, she’s giving them a gift: a path towards a way of life that isn’t completely confined to the dictates of capitalism. (Of course, this is immediately followed by an unflattering reversal. Biss tells all of this to a taxi driver with an architecture degree, who then informs her that he thinks teaching students skills that can’t pay the bills is wrong.) Biss links art to service, maintenance, and care, all types of work undervalued by our economic system, and declares her fundamental allegiance to poetry—that least remunerative branch of writing where she got her start, though she “can pass as a writer who is not a poet.” It was as a young poet that she experienced a gift economy centered around art rather than the accumulation of money. Her fellow poets had day jobs, but in their time off, they printed, bound, and gave away their own books and the books of their peers, edited each other’s work, and gave other poets places to stay without any expectation of pay. This gift economy is the closest we get, in Having and Being Had, to an imagined alternative system to capitalism.
What should we make of all this? Biss isn’t sure how to conclude her book. “There’s no end, there’s no resolution,” she tells a friend. The friend suggests the only real way to end it would be to burn her house down. Instead, Biss digs a hole six feet wide in her backyard, her palms blistering, to plant a tree, a nod to the economic egalitarian Digger movements of both the 1960s (in the US) and 1649 (England). While she digs, she resolves to sell this book—Having and Being Had—for money, which she will then use to buy herself more time to write. Digging the hole herself is a “private protest,” a refusal to allow her money to serve as a protective barrier between her and the real world. And yes, as Biss knows, too many of the problems of capitalism lie in finding these “private” solutions to problems that concern all of us.
Biss spends most of the unusually long notes section at the end, in fact, acknowledging that “there are limits to what can be learned about the middle class from within the middle class.” For one thing, the book is filled with white people and their “ephemera.” Her friends, seemingly all white middle class writers or intellectuals, crop up again and again, as Biss chats with them about work, art, and the meaning of capitalism. “Devoted camaraderie between poets is what feeds art, while careerism and capitalism are what starves it,” she writes by way of explanation. And she began her investigation of the middle class by reading only the books and articles that her friends passed along to her, which “enhanced my awareness of how my friends extend and limit what I know and understand.” But how is this different from what most writers do when they’re starting to write a book? Did she read about the middle class from any other perspectives? And is a person really “investigating” the middle class if she merely provides a portrait of a very small, unusual, and elite portion of it (that is, a social circle of Northwestern University writers and intellectuals), while viewing the rest of it with vague contempt? If we’re imagining ways we might resist the all-encompassing value system of capitalism, why not begin by considering perspectives outside our own?
Recently, though, a sense of grudging respect has shared space with my frustration. I began to suspect that the book itself was a winking act of resistance: just as Biss can pass as a writer who isn’t a poet, this book passes as not-poetry. And while it’s a commodity, something Biss sold for money and a commercial object that retails for $26, the book also resists commodification. It resists my own need to categorize and explicate and pin down. The book triggers my impatience, which is founded on my need to be “productive,” to get things done—a need internalized after two plus decades of my own thorough indoctrination in the middle class.
Perhaps the frustration I feel towards this book is what Biss feels about her own middle class life. Maybe the book frustrates me because middle class life, which this book sets out to capture and interrogate, is singularly frustrating, as compromised as it is—the way people like me lament Amazon’s labor practices and yet still can’t help going to amazon.com and ordering office supplies. Biss doesn’t try to justify a life she knows is in so many ways unjustifiable. Perhaps the beginning of a response to capitalism’s ills—though not the solution itself—is to see the compromises within my own frustrating middle class life clearly, as Biss does hers. That way she and I can both “remind ourselves,” as she writes in a piece about the Titanic, “of how safe disaster feels”—before, that is, real disaster strikes.