The Other Side of Money: On the Stories We Tell about Wealth, Poverty, and Inequality

Bette Adriaanse Considers Capitalism, Art, and How Change Happens

August 14, 2023  By Bette Adriaanse

1. Once upon a time, around 2014, I began writing What’s Mine. It will be a novel about someone whose home gets invaded by this annoying person, I wrote to my agent. It turns out this annoying person may be the true owner of this home. How does the main character find out what is rightfully his, how far does he want to go back into history, and would he be willing to share? “Don’t worry,” I added, “it will be a lighthearted, short novel.”

2. When I started writing What’s Mine, I was working as an artist and a cleaner. I was, in a white privileged middle class way, a little bit poor. I shared an art studio in an abandoned post office with my friend, also an artist with a cleaning job. We talked about our empty bank accounts. We felt like the world was ill, and money was the cause. By 2023, when What’s Mine was finally finished, I was a little bit rich.

3. While researching my novel in 2015, I was brought into contact with a judge in the UK by my former landlord. The judge was happy to help me, a friend of his had helped Ian McEwan with his novel. With my list of questions I sat down a the kitchen table in his home, while his wife made crumpets. “Once upon a time, all land was undivided,” I started. “Most land became owned by conquering, and it was conquered in a way that we would now consider illegal. My first question: What would keep the British people from taking to court claims based on the fact that parts of the land were once illegally gained?”

“The statute of limitations of course,” the judge said, looking at me incredulously. “And a little thing called Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which protects property.” He raised his eyebrows. “It’s a ridiculous question.”

When I asked some more questions from my list, which law precedes the other, the statute of limitations or the UDHR, and can these laws be changed? he started getting moody. This was not like the Ian McEwan thing.

“Are you an anarchist?” he asked.

It soon ended with him getting up and putting on his judge garb. “You will never get it through Parliament, they all have land!” he yelled from the doorway, leaving me with his wife, eating the crumpets at the kitchen table.

4. In 2014 my then boyfriend, now husband, wanted to build a building in Amsterdam on an empty plot of land. He had worked many years to pay off a great debt, caused by bad choices, and massively increased by the debt trade and interest. With only about $25,000 in savings, it seemed like an impossible plan, to build 6 apartments, but he was determined. Inspired by research by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton that showed that emotional well-being does not rise after reaching $75,000 yearly income, he had made it his goal to reach that amount in passive income. My own dream was to make art and be happy. We decided that it would be the best thing for my art and happiness if I had a steady income from something else and we would do this building thing together. In the next four years, we were able to take out a loan, build the foundation, take another loan, build the concrete structure and so on and so on. It was risky and difficult but when it was done it was worth a lot more than we borrowed. My husband had achieved his dream of financial stability.

Our backgrounds are very different, him coming from an immigrant father, at young age very well aware of the importance of money and much too familiar with the dangers of the world. My trajectory was firmly middle class, I had sailed through my childhood only vaguely aware of money, choosing art school as my foundation for the future.

We became landlords. Renting out two apartments in the building and running a small hotel in the three others. Aside of the enormous relief I had pictured, of not worrying when another bill came in, of stopping my cleaning job, I also felt discomfort. Now I had more than some of my friends. Our tenants paid a rent I considered very high—the same rent we had paid until we got this—and I often found myself wondering how much of their salary it would be, feeling embarrassed when talking with them in the garden. I felt guilty, but that stopped when Covid hit. Our income from the little hotel instantly came to a halt. With our loans to pay off, the monthly loss was worrying. It dawned on my black-and-white mind that our stability was not as stable as I thought.

When I arrived on the other side of money, I could not do the thing I had planned: to just make art and be happy.

5. The experience of moving to the other side of money was both fantastic and uncomfortable. The first thing that happened when we got out of debt, was that we became very scared to get into it again. The second thing that happened was that we got healthy. I found the right treatment for the scoliosis that caused chronic pain and I had the money and energy to exercise each day, my husband found help to get rid of his anger, deal with the trauma of the racism he had experienced and began building a new approach towards society. After a period of adjustment, we slept better. We became nicer and more forgiving. We both started helping others. With more time to spend on my art, it became easier to make money from it and I found nicer jobs that suited my skills. But all the ideas underlying my novel became shaky. Who was I to have my characters question if they were entitled to what they had, if I did not want to think about whether I was entitled to what I had?

6. In 2019 I met with a new friend in L.A. to talk about the non-profit I was co-founding, for artists and scientists around the world to collaborate on social issues. My new friend was very kind, well-connected and well-read. He was also on a 48-hour fast. He was on his 40th hour but seemed fine. I ordered tea to be sympathetic, while he drank water. When I told him about our non-profit and our mission, he said that there was a theory that altruism is not real, because every altruistic deed increases the probability that this person does something good for you later on, and that in the end, every altruistic act is a selfish act.

I thought about it for a second. There is something more than the act and the reward. Doesn’t it start with a feeling? I pointed at the checkered floor of the cafe. If someone would be lying on this floor right besides us, in some kind of trouble, we would enjoy our drinks a lot less. We don’t like to see pain. We are inclined to help.

My new friend agreed and added that perhaps that is because it negatively affects our self image. We don’t want to be the kind of person who just sits there.

7. In the African law Ubuntu, or Bantoe-law, according to Professor Mogobe Ramose, there is no statute of limitations. Everything that causes an imbalance in the community can be brought before trial, regardless of when this imbalance was originally caused. The approval of the living, the living dead, and the not-yet-born are all considered within this legal concept, which unites the past, the present and the future. It’s a way of looking at the world that considers restoring balance in the longterm to be important, even crucial.

8. Four years after our first meeting I am meeting my friend in L.A. again. The day before I see him I am sitting on a terrace outside a cafe in San Luis Obispo, drinking juice. A woman with a full shopping cart and unruly hair is coming down the sidewalk. She suddenly lets go of her cart, kicks off her boots, dumps a bunch of possessions onto the ground and crumples beside them ,right in front of the terrace. With her legs spread out wide and all her belongings scattered around her, she passes out. No one looks at her. We continue drinking our $15 juices, people around me are chatting about getting their eyebrows mircobladed and ordering extra coleslaw. I think of my friend and my argument for altruism, that our drinks would taste less good if someone was in trouble on the floor next to our table. This was now actually happening. I don’t want to stay but I don’t know how to help her either. I think of the people I have seen in the past week in California. A woman with three young children begging on a busy, fumy intersection, a weeping man below our hotel window who got threatened by a group of people he owed money to, the boy who was sweeping the sidewalk around his tent. Aside from giving some people a couple of dollars, I did nothing, scared to get personally connected to people who are in deep trouble that I can’t fix. But there is a huge price to pay when you look away. The goodwill and care we naturally feel towards others, which I think is part of our humanity and essential to inner peace, is numbed.

9. Now I am writing this in the city of Merida, Mexico. People have their front doors open until late at night. I can look straight into their living rooms. There’s a man watching a soccer game on tv from a hammock. A little round guy steps out of his bathroom in a tiny towel and looks straight at me as I pass by. A group of women are chatting in a living room, relaxed on sofas. I feel emotional and it takes me a while to realise why. I feel like I am missing out. In Amsterdam, in Nice, in London, in L.A., all the places where I have stayed, I am always watching my back. I think of my parents and the rounds they make to lock their doors, click clack the top lock, turning the middle lock, click clack the lower lock, check the windows. A group of “Eastern Europeans” as they were called by the newspapers, had been burgling their neighborhood. Is it too much to ask to feel at ease in the world right now as a Dutch, French, British, or American person? Maybe it is. Our shoes have been made in some sweatshop, our gas comes from Russia, our oil from Saudi-Arabia, our bank trades in weapons, our veggies were harvested by underpaid laborers, our computer parts were mined by children, our pension fund is involved in land grabbing in Africa. We are not at ease because we are harming others every day through the system we live in.

10. I felt very uncomfortable for a long time while writing my novel. It’s very easy to have opinions, a voice in my head said. Why don’t you just give it all away, then you can stop your guilty whining and actually write this thing without being a hypocrite. Be like Jose Mujica, the former president of Uruguay. He chose to keep living on his farm and gave most of his salary away to charity. But he did have a farm, his own farm, and a state pension, the voice in my head argues back. I list to myself things I did do, co-founding a non-profit and launching the Heroines! Movement, a movement to tell the stories of remarkable women worldwide, to give children more diverse role models. We have launched a school program, a children’s book, and are trying to support people in other countries who do the same. I am not getting paid, and I spend a lot of time and money on it. My husband started mentoring young immigrant entrepreneurs. We give money away to charity and to friends in challenging situations. We are happy with what we have and we don’t need more, but we hold on to our security. I realize it is not guilt I feel anymore, it’s responsibility; the ability to respond. I often think of the words of my friend, the indigenous artist Aqui Thami: “If you’re not working with the community, and you’re not sharing resources… then what are you doing?”

11. So what do I propose? I ask myself as I stare at my main character in my mind. What should he do? Should he just give his home away, so he can become homeless? What kind of solution is that?

12. When I was little and I had a moral problem that confused me, I always made up a story. By turning myself and my friend into squirrels, for instance, I found my way out of the boundaries and details of the particular situation and new doors appeared, new solutions.

13. A memory of a Wednesday in 2011. It is eight in the morning and I wake up to a pounding noise. In the haze of sleep, I realize that the pounding is on the door of our apartment. It is the kind of pounding I knew from tv shows, where the police are looking for a suspect. Then a sound of some kind of machine. My husband, then boyfriend, sits up straight and runs to the door. Three people, a debt collector, a policeman and a locksmith, are in our hallway, they were about to break the door open. They are there because of missed payments. I watch them in my quickly thrown on t-shirt, still in a daze. My first feeling is shame that we were still sleeping, we look like the kind of people who are too lazy to work and are rightfully in debt. I want to tell them that my husband worked until 4 AM, that he works every night in his restaurant, that he works harder than anyone I know to pay off this debt and the fees and fines and percentages that are added to it every week. The debt collector stands in the middle of the living room with a notebook, and announces in a loud voice what she is there to do: make a list of our possessions. My husband asks the locksmith if he can please leave the apartment, because he is not required to be there. The locksmith ignores him and steps into our living room too. He starts looking around, commenting on our home with the policeman. The debt collector starts making her list. Flat screen TV, sofa, speakers. They all walk into our bedroom together. My husband talks to the policeman: can the locksmith please go, he has no right to be here. He knows the law, he studies law, not to practice it but mostly to defend against injustices. The police officer agrees, the locksmith has to wait in the hallway. On his way out the locksmith turns around and yells at us, “They’ll get you, they’ll kick you out.”

We were never kicked out. But I think of it often. Those people were under so much pressure in their own lives, they behaved in a way they must not have liked. I know how that is.

14. In the early days of colonialism Jesuit missionaries were sent to America to convert the American people, now called “Native Americans.” They had long philosophical conversations with the Americans as part of their work. Some parts of these conversations were written down, as is described in book The Dawn Of Everything. A certain Father Briard was assigned in 1608 to evangelise the Algonkin speaking Mi’qmak in Nova Scotia. This is a quote from the book, about the Mi’qmak’s opinion of the French, which was not very favourable: “You are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us if we have a morsel of bread, we share it with our neighbour.”

We are happy with what we have and we don’t need more, but we hold on to our security. I realize it is not guilt I feel anymore, it’s responsibility; the ability to respond.

What seemed to irritate Briard the most was that the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert that they were, as a result, “‘richer’ than the French. The French had more material possessions, the Mi’kmaq conceded; but they had other, greater assets: ease, comfort and time.”

Another quote from the book is from a certain Brother Gabriel Sagard, who speaks about the Wendat nation: “They reciprocate hospitality and give such assistance to one another that the necessities of all are provided for, without there being any indigent beggar in their towns and villages, and they considered it a very bad thing when they heard it said that they were in France a great many of these needy beggars, and thought that this was for lack of charity in us, and blamed us for it severely.”

Many of these accounts of Native Americans’ opinions on European culture were later discarded as Western fantasies about noble savages. But according to The Dawn Of Everything it was contact with this new way of thinking that helped Europeans think differently, and helped lay the foundation for the Enlightenment, though it was never acknowledged.

15. My main character starts having conversations with his cleaner, Marina. She is based on several people I have gotten to know in my life through my cleaning work and through our international network. People who I admire very much. People who have never sold out, not once, and are at peace with themselves and sleep well, despite sometimes extreme poverty and inequality. They help others and create new systems and support groups. People who are tougher and kinder than me.

Through the conversations with his cleaner, my main character Luis makes a decision that surprises me, and him. Suddenly I am following him through the Amsterdam Vondelpark, ignited and excited by his decision. He has decided he wants to feel at ease.

16. In many discussions about our current lives, we use the word capitalism. As science fiction theorist Alan N. Shapiro explains, we often use the word ‘capitalism’ to mean only this thing: the top-down globalized capitalism of the Big Corporations. But capitalism can also be a force that can fight against Big Corporation capitalism: a decentralized bottom-up entrepreneurial capitalism. It’s hard to simplify the times we live in. We have a lot of thoughts and comments on the people who say and do “wrong” things. The reality is that we are all mired chin-deep in a complex system and it’s hard to imagine another way for us to live—one that is not a society based on private property and profit. Many of my conversations about our global economic system and the implications for our lives quickly go in that direction: “What are you going to do about it? Go off the grid? Where are you going to buy your gas, where will you go to the hospital?”

According to research in Paul Behrens’ book The Best Of Times, The Worst Of Times our consumption and our population has grown so much that if we all wanted to escape society and become self-sufficient, without using any food distribution and modern technologies, we would not have enough food to go around. Our thriving relies on our communities, supply chains, and technologies. Put another way: we have to do it together.

17. When I arrived on the other side of money, I could not do the thing I had planned: to just make art and be happy. The happy part came easily when I tidied myself up inside and wasn’t crushed by bills anymore, but the “just make art” part did not come so easily, because I felt a responsibility towards the people who are being crushed. One way I am learning to act on this responsibility is through my own fiction. Like the novel Red Star made me rethink housing and jobs, like the novel The Left Hand Of Darkness changed my perception of gender, I am trying to use my stories to imagine new ways of interacting too. My characters, like Luis in What’s Mine, can try out different ways of living together, replacing fear with care. I am a little writer and I am unsure of my own impact, but I have seen how all the stories, poems, songs and novels continuously build on each other, making little shifts in and additions to how we see the world, some big and some small. And if we keep imagining new ways of co-existing and adding our stories together, I hope it will help us find a way to collectively make bigger changes in the real world. I remember that Ursula Le Guin, when asked to give advice to younger writers living in difficult times, once said: “All stories are about change, so… that might help.”


What’s Mine by Bette Adriaanse is available now via Unnamed Press. 

Bette Adriaanse
Bette Adriaanse
Bette Adriaanse is a writer and a visual artist. Her first novel, Rus Like Everyone Else, was published by Unnamed Press in 2015. Bette also teaches writing at the Gerrit Rietveld Art Academy in Amsterdam and she is the co-founder of the global Heroines! Movement. Her latest novel is What's Mine.

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