the catch is the western middle class

If you chat with Stephanie for longer than about half an hour, you’ll probably discover her very loud opinions on capitalism. She has opinions. As a Chinese-Australian, from a South East Asian economy, from a variety of colonies, capitalism looms large and angrily. Capitalism is at the forefront of her mind when she rails against environmental degradation, against the injustices of our social system.

One of the major components of environmental action and changing the dichotomy in Australia is often about capitalism, and how we need to find a new paradigm. At No Award, we applaud anyone trying to engage with the capitalist storyline and changing it. We especially applaud anyone bringing other people with them.

And yet, it was with a wary and cautious eye that she opened this article at The Age: A cashless economy? Where’s the catch?

Here’s an email Steph got from Liz when she was like ‘maybe we should No Award about this’:


(Please note, No Award is very fond of long hair and also not having jobs)

Let’s start with, does ‘cashless’ mean ‘no cash’ as in, 100% use of eftpos and POS and no actual physical cash? Or does ‘cashless’ mean no money? Because in recent years, media has used ‘cashless’ to mean the former. This article, however, is about the latter.

“We enjoy the feeling of being able to choose what we do regardless of money,” says cashless economy pioneer Rachel Newby, 24, who lives with her partner Liam Culbertson, 26, in a Gippsland shack.

Being from Malaysia, Steph would in fact consider this a barter economy or perhaps a gift economy, not a cashless economy. But despite her graduation from UWA’s School of Economics and Commerce, she is not qualified to make this distinction and will move on from this minor distraction to the greater sin.

“We don’t have to worry about rent or plane tickets or food or fancy clothes,” Newby says, adding that instead they focus on learning valuable skills such as  propagating fruit trees and woodworking. They also have ample free time to read books, travel, play music, have good conversations and meet friends.

So what they’re saying is that they have the luxury of family and friends who live less than a plane trip away, and that they’re the sort of people who judge you if you find pleasure in the design of food or clothing? I’m not really sure. Presumably they still worry about food and clothes.

Newby and Culbertson live on a friend’s plot, without paying rent or rates, based in a cabin they built from salvage. To avoid running out of living resources, the pair volunteer at a goat farm and orchard among other places, in exchange for goods including apples and yarn.

Plus, they take jobs periodically and keep an emergency fund.

Oh, so they do use money? And they exchange their labour for money? And living on the friend’s plot is without rent with no mention of an exchange so maybe it is a gift economy?

Food also comes from dumpster dives, which are fruitful wherever you go, according to Newby, who forages two luscious dumpsters at local supermarkets that refrain from pouring bleach on ditched produce.

Let’s talk about supermarkets that use their unsellables to support lower income peoples. Let’s talk about businesses that lock their bins so that their produce rots and can’t be salvaged. Let’s talk about bakeries that, at close, give all their unsold produce to charities that run soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Let’s talk about supermarkets and grocery stores that reject produce from farmers if it’s not pretty enough. (I guess we can even talk about Woolworths’ ‘odd bunch‘ campaign.)

The biggest benefit their makeshift sharing-economy lifestyle brings is the freedom to spend the hours and days as they will. The biggest drawback is stints during which they feel unsettled because of lack of shelter, or hungry because of lack of nutrition, or cold and wet because they are hitch-hiking in a snowstorm in the middle of a Canadian winter.

No. Thank you, but no. I am content to exchange my money for shelter, especially during this difficult Melbourne winter. If you’d like to exchange money for other people to have shelter, feel free to donate to the Melbourne City Mission or the Lighthouse Foundation; check out the Crisis Help Network; follow @homelessinmelbourne.

Originally from the top of the middle-class “privilege pyramid”

Quokkas, I have some news about your position in the privilege pyramid. You are still there. Look at you, white and middle-class and appearing to be a conventional couple. You are squatting on land and living off the willingness of the people around you to indulge you. You’re not doing anything radical or challenging. You are right, smack, on the top of the middle-class privilege pyramid.

(Liz is inclined to guess that people would be less delighted to have them living rent-free on their land if they were Indigenous, or refugees, or mentally ill.)

(In fact, here’s an article about a woman who has been living a similar life to the one espoused here, in NYC, for several years; now she’d like to go home, so as a French woman, she’s going to report herself and get deported. She acknowledges, “I’m aware that being French, and not Latino for example, makes things easier.”)

“Older folks seem to love the idea of us doing what they used to do as kids, or in some cases, as young hippies,” she says. She and Culbertson just might burn out, she says, but in the meantime they are enjoying the moment.

That they have the option to burn out is a privilege. That they can enjoy the moment is a privilege. I’m so glad for you, Rachel and Liam. You are living your dream right now, and not actively contributing to our capitalist society. I am honestly so happy for you. But don’t believe for a second that you’re changing the world, or making a difference, or challenging anyone or anything. You are doing exactly what your privilege lets you do.

The former veterinary surgeon has an annual taxable income of just $35,000, from rental properties.

How is this cashless. How. (Also this person allegedly lives in ‘Rural Perth’, cited here as Ocean Reef. Hahah.)

Other post-capitalism cashless economy exponents house-sit or couch-surf – sleep on associates’ sofas for free. One couch-surfing activist in his 30s, who calls himself Temu, says he has lived most of his adult life on an income Australia ranks below the poverty line – just $1000 a month.


“And my main conclusion is that the poverty line is ridiculous,” Temu says. His negligible income obliges frugality, he says, “but it’s really not as hard as the sob stories I often see in the media”.

Steph will bet you everything she earns in her job where she gets paid to try to prepare people for our anarchic, terrifying, dystopic climate change future, that this person is also from the top of the middle-class privilege pyramid. He has chosen to become homeless; he has chosen to sleep on sofas and couch-surf.

Often he stays in Asia, which makes the dollar go further and provides perspective: the sight of real poverty

No Award, I think we know that, as someone who was born lower class and from a developing country, Steph is very opposed to concepts like “first world problems” and also very much a proponent of talking about the realities of life in a developing country versus the realities of an Australian life.

There is real poverty in Australia. There is real privilege in Asia. I bet this dude believes in volunteering overseas, as well. Helping those poor children in developing countries who could really use the help provided by grief tourists from the top of the middle-class privilege pyramid.

In Malaysia, barter has long been a thing; it’s gradually been a thing getting banned. I suddenly wondered if it’s part of a conspiracy to pay more taxes. Maybe it is. It’s still a thing that exists. It’s not new, though articles such as this would have you believe that it is.

(Liz says: is this one of those things where middle-class white people discover something that brown people have been doing forever, and decide they’ve invented or perfected it?)

5 thoughts on “the catch is the western middle class

  1. Okay, so we’ll leave out the bit where they have a friend who is wealthy enough to gift them the space to live in. We’ll leave out the bit where they started with sufficient resources of money, time and knowledge to be able to set themselves up in such a way that the locals don’t kick up a stink (knowing how to construct a shack from salvaged materials such that the local council won’t immediately condemn it and order it taken down is a significant privilege in this society, let’s face it). We’ll leave out the bit where they’re both presumably white, able-bodied and neurotypical, as well as being young and presumably fit and reasonably charismatic. We’ll leave out the bit where they’re surrounded by a social network which is willing to take on their unskilled labour at below market rates (and we’ll leave out the questions of who they’re excluding from the job market by offering such labour, and who is spending a lot of time on social security as a result). We’ll leave out the bits where they’re presumably close enough to a country town with two supermarkets (a reasonably large country town, in other words) to be able to dumpster dive at both.

    We’ll leave out the bit where a former veterinary surgeon has a property portfolio which can earn them $35,000 per annum ($673 per week, or thereabouts – so probably two suburban places in Perth, maybe three or four if the mortgages aren’t fully paid off yet) in profit. We’ll leave out the bit where someone who chooses to couch-surf and live on an income of approximately $1000 per annum in their thirties can also apparently also afford air fares to Asia. Oh, and we’ll leave out the network of friends and contacts Temu has who apparently have the spare space and spare capacity to be able to put him up for extended periods of time without experiencing hardship themselves, or being at risk of having their landlord turf them out for it.

    When you leave all those things out, yeah, it sounds wonderful and radical and post-capitalist and different.

    When you leave all those little details in, however, it just sounds like another couple of upper-middle-class kids “moving out of home” into the back-yard tree house.

    I’m reminded of a quote about Ghandi, by Sarojini Naidu: “If only Bapu knew the cost of setting him up in poverty!”

  2. After reading through the article, it appears that yes, a lot of the people pursuing these lifestyles are doing so after having earned a fair bit of money (Temu, for example, is apparently living on the interest from money saved up from a previous “good job” – presumably as a high flying banking executive, in these days of low interest rates; our ex-vet with the property portfolio may well be making money on renting property in the UK, rather than Australia). They’ve had the money to be able to set things up so they can live this way – our ex-vet has her house converted to run on solar power, had her car converted to run on biodiesel, and so on, and therefore thinks she’s doing fine because she doesn’t need even half of her $35,000 per annum (which mostly goes on the rates and taxes).

    Back to the Vimes “Boots” theory of socio-economic injustice, I think. You need an awful lot of start-up capital to be able to live comfortably on nothing per annum.

  3. Sophie

    “Everyone should couch surf” is such a bogglingly short sighted and selfish sentiment. WHERE DO THE COUCHES COME FROM. (Also don’t forget the able bodied privilege of your only medical expense being one $300 dentist bill)

    1. Well, of course, they’re supplied by sheeple who haven’t woken up to the true beauty of the cash-free economy, and who are willing to welcome you in. I’m willing to bet the twit who said that firstly, doesn’t need more than about five or six hours sleep per night, and secondly, doesn’t snore (seriously, sleep apnoea would be the kiss of death for a couch surfing lifestyle).

      Wonder what he’s going to do when his friends finally get fed up with supporting his free-loading lifestyle, though?

      1. sqbr

        Wonder what he’s going to do when his friends finally get fed up with supporting his free-loading lifestyle, though?

        Or decide to join him! I mean, only fair he returns the favour, right?

        There’s a theme in Debt by David Graeber about “the communism of the rich” that feels relevant.

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