As with all of the ‘My Business is a Garden’ posts, these thoughts are shared here as in-progress workings, not complete or definitive statements. I’m grappling with intersectional themes as I work to make Little Red Tarot a feminist, anti-oppressive and anticapitalist space/business. This post is the result of lots of interesting conversations with friends, peers and mentors in the #witchyqueer field, shoutout especially to Sabrina Scott today, for helpful email conversations on social capital.
What is social capital, and how can we be answerable to it as platform holders and business owners?
Content note: Brief non-graphic mention of sexual assault/#MeToo in one paragraph.
Before sitting down with this piece, I had my own understanding of what the term ‘social capital’ meant. In researching though, I found that there are whole schools dedicated to the study of social capital, particularly in a community development context, where social capital is described as an economy that can strengthen and empower communities. Whilst my reading of this academic stuff has certainly influenced this post and I’ll draw on a couple of articles, here I want to focus on one specific context of social capital: when it is held (or more accurately, perceived to be held) by an individual who owns a platform – like me, owning Little Red Tarot.
What is social capital?
Hmm. It’s an intangible currency that exists within communities and/or relationships, and thus an economy in itself.
A person who holds social capital has access to power which, if they choose, they can use to get ahead in some way. A simple and broad example is: if people think you are cool, they’re more likely to say yes to your suggestions, listen to what you have to say, want to hang out with you. Your opinions may hold more weight so you can influence what people think or do. People are more likely to do things for you. Doors open.
Social capital overlaps a lot with privilege. Being white, being middle class, being able-bodied, for example – because society is unequal, these things too give us access to power. So within all critiques of social capital, we need to also be aware of those specific privilege points (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, income, legal status, etc). But it is not limited to these things.
And our marginalisations – where we normally experience oppression – can actually be sources of capital, even if they cause barriers in other parts of our life. (E.g. Beyonce is undoubtably seen as more cool because she is a Black woman, even though her Blackness also means she will experience racist oppression. And my queerness is the reason many readers come to this site. It makes my life harder in some ways, but in the context of this blog it’s definitely been a source of social capital.)
At times we are oblivious to our capital. Other times we are aware of it. Sometimes we might feel a sense of if but not be able to name it. But it’s there, all the time.
I’m making this sound a bit sinister – but it’s not at all. Though social capital can be abused and though it is a site of inequality (which I’ll come onto in a bit), it is really a completely natural, unavoidable part of community life. We all hold social capital of some sorts, and we are all seeking to get it in some ways. Like money, social capital is morally neutral. It’s how it flows and how it is used that determines the moral value of a social capital economy.
Important: Talking about social capital as something we ‘hold’ is a misnomer. Social capital exists in the space where one person relates to another, it exists in the relationship itself, not in any person’s possession. It depends on both parties to exist – a person may be very cool, but if there is not another person there to validate that, there is no social capital. If you all decided you didn’t like Little Red Tarot any more, my social capital would vanish in a poof of smoke. In this way it’s not like money, privately owned, but something built within relationships.
For simplicity, I’m going to talk about how people ‘hold’ social capital, but a more accurate description would be how we ‘have access to and are perceived to hold’ social capital, using some examples from my own work in Little Red Tarot.
How do we use social capital?
As I said, to a degree, everybody is seeking to build social capital, and everybody uses the capital we hold.
We have and use it in different ways – mainly to open doors and establish platforms. At school, one kid in my class had the internet at home, so we all wanted to be her friend. Maybe you organise a really great open mic night in town or run a much-loved cafe, maybe you have decision-making power in your community, or you’re a teacher or other social figure. Maybe you have some really strong polarising opinions and those who agree with you make you a spokesperson and follow you in large numbers …or maybe everyone just loves your cat memes. All of these things can boost your reputation, popularity, or access to resources. When Forbes said Kylie Jenner was set to become the youngest self-made billionaire (or whatever it was), they completely missed the ball. Kylie is not “self-made” at all (er – nobody is). She rides on huge tides of social capital brought to her by being part of the Kardashian family.
In its simplest sense, social capital can be anything about you that others value…and maybe even ‘want a piece of’. (Because it can be shared out too, in a way. Aligning yourself with a cool person makes you a bit cooler too, right? If I take so-and-so’s course or read her book or retweet their tweets, in a tiny way I ride on a little of their social capital. It’s stuff we all do.)
Being the creator and owner of Little Red Tarot has brought me plenty of social capital.
It’s given me access to wonderful people and conversations. It’s mean that I’ve received a continuing stream of support in warm emails and comments from people who enjoy this site, and these have helped me show up in difficult times. And it’s meant that I’ve received a lot more ‘yes’s to my requests, and folks have been happy to align with me, help me with things, be part of my projects. Having a popular platform has also meant I could grow myself a living from this space, opening a shop on the side which is now my sole income. The blog has lent the shop social capital, so I’ve benefitted financially as the shop has grown as a result of this – the shop is perceived as more ‘cool’ because it’s aligned with the blog. (By the same token, the blog is a labour of love, I don’t pay myself anything for my work here – income from courses pays for writers).
None of these things are bad. On the contrary. Mostly this work has been wonderful, and joyous, challenging and fascinating; many cool things have happened for me and for others. I wish this for everybody :)
There are also the downsides of social capital. I don’t always feel easy with my role heading up Little Red Tarot, because I don’t think I have the experience to run it as perfectly and equitably as I would like. But the job demands that I do anyway. Cue fear and self-doubt.
Whether we enjoy our social capital or not, what’s important here is the accountability.
When people like us, respect us, when we have leaned on this to build a platform, when we have this kind of voice and power – this social capital – it becomes more important to be conscious of the imbalance of power in our interactions. Why? Because if we are influencing peoples’ decisions, behaviour, thoughts, that’s a power we must wield ethically.
Social capital can be horrendously abused.
The #MeToo movement revealed (to those who didn’t already know) the vast numbers of powerful men sexually assaulting women, leaning on their positions as directors or celebrities for protection (see Hannah Gadsby on society’s preoccupation with preserving a man’s reputation, in Nanette.) These rapists knew that they could get away with abhorrent behaviour, because their social capital (including but not only their gender) meant that nobody would challenge them. Colleagues and friends were afraid to speak up because their own social capital rested on that of these men. But, as has happened with #MeToo, social capital can be ripped away in an instant, if the truth comes out and crowds turn away.
To get back down to our level: in this particular piece, I’m not speaking to situations of violence, abuse and predation. I’m talking to my peers – fellow business owners and people with platforms, who have good, ‘normal’ intentions, and who want to be more conscious of and accountable to the capital they’re building, and reduce harm and oppression in our work.
It forms part of a code of ethics, and it is a lot like how we are learning as a community to check our privileges. The first job is to notice where our social capital is giving us unequal power in our interactions. The next task is to check in with what’s going on. We can do a body scan. We can read tarot. We can meditate or journal. We can ask ourselves: What power am I wielding right now, and does that feel okay? Am I taking advantage of my power here? Am I being responsible to the other person/people? These kinds of questions and practices can help us feel our way towards more authentic, more accountable business practices in which we respect and honour the systems that benefit us above others.
Practicing accountability to social capital
Some ways that I practice accountability are:
- Opening the platform to other voices, sharing the platform widely (guest posts, columnists, platform-boosting projects…)
- Being open to frank and honest discussions with readers.
- Being open to frank and honest discussions with writers.
- Listening to feedback, responding where appropriate.
- Considering the impact of my content and making conscious choices that reduce harm and oppression or perpetuate fear.
- Acknowledging where my privileges benefit my social capital and my ability to accrue more of it.
- Putting serious care into discussions with anyone whose shared words or experiences may boost the social capital of LRT (and thus me), and seeking ways to
- make sure that if this exchange happens, that the other person’s needs are actually being met.
- Giving writers loads of notice of LRT’s closing down and working with each writer if required to see if there are ways I or LRT can offer support for the transition.
- Examining the impact of my work benefits from the labour of others, including in the manufacturing and transporting of goods in my shop.
- Reducing my work’s environmental impact.
- When offering tarot readings I worked consciously to prevent people from becoming dependent on me.
- Ensuring that all transactions are two-way – I am never simply taking, transactions must be mutually beneficial.
- Publicly stating Little Red Tarot’s guiding values.
…and so on.
I feel very conscious of the power that comes from holding this platform, and am often – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously – looking for ways to rebalance the dynamic.
I find it helpful to always be seeking to bring this into consciousness. When I’m not aware that I’m trying to shift power away from myself, it shows up as abdication, confusion, I feel uneasy and don’t address it. But when I’m conscious of the dynamic, aware that it’s concern about social capital that is driving my behaviour, I can work freely, happily and intentionally.
I can think of several points in my work in LRT where I haven’t been accountable to my social capital, and in these ways have hurt people who trust me.
Some of these are when I’ve started or announced new projects, invited folks to get engaged, then later dropped or abandoned. One that sits in a particularly guilty part of me was a few years ago, back on Skye. I was in a depressive episode that would last 18 months. I created an oracle of found objects on the beach near where I lived, and wrote about how I was using them to not feel so lost and despairing. I dreamed up an art project in which the oracle was passed from person to person, collecting stories. I launched the project with an open invitation to readers to write in with their ‘lost’ story, along with their address. And because I have a fairly large, engaged audience, stories started coming in. All of these beautiful, heart-wrenching, vulnerable pieces of people who were hurting in some way.
And then I slowly realised that I had no idea how to make this happen, logistically. Months went by, I never figured it out. Eventually I realised I was not going to make this happen, and I abandoned the project, leaving those stories, those fragments of beautiful people who had trusted me to hold their words, to languish in a folder.
It’s one thing to launch a project that doesn’t get off the ground – we all might do that and that’s okay. What’s wrong here is that I had social capital in the form of a platform, folks trusting me, folks willing to do what I suggest more readily – and I asked them to do something without a plan for what I would do next, how I would follow up after I had received from people. Then, I abandoned the whole thing. There was no care given to the people who shared.
I’ve done similar things with the Alternative Tarot Network, and ideas for an online community space I shared earlier – I got people excited and/or engaged, then left them high and dry. It’s not okay and I apologise sincerely. This post is part of my figuring out how to do better in future.
I’m not listing these things to beat myself up or wallow in guilt. This post is part of my figuring out how to do better in future. I share them because they provide useful examples of how we might abdicate on the responsibilities that come with social capital, particularly the kind we hold via our platforms and/or businesses.
Announcing things too soon (i.e. before we’ve thought things through and are sure we can deliver on our promises to our communities) is one way we might ghost on our social capital.
Others ways include:
- Refusing to engage with the people whose backs we stand on when building our platforms or businesses.
- Not quoting properly, or acknowledging the lineage of teachings we have received and draw on.
- Not paying contributors enough.
- Arguing down prices.
- Manipulation of peoples’ feelings.
- Getting people to do things for us.
- Not showing up for the promises we have made to others.
- Not listening to feedback from the community or beyond.
- Promoting harmful messages.
- Not taking the time to fully understand the things we are sharing and their impact on others (from a retweet to a full-blown article.)
- Positioning ourselves as experts in fields we’ve been exploring for just a short time.
- Selling things that are culturally appropriative.
- Promoting gentrifying behaviour/lifestyle.
- Amazon affiliate links (personal bugbear, please everyone will you boycott this godawful company – those few dollars you make wave a big flag in support of the bastion of unethical business practice and literally the richest man in the world.)
..and many other things.
When we apply the lens of social capital and social economy, we begin to see how many of our interactions are informed, influenced or buoyed by the social capital we have/seek. As I’ve said, it’s not sinister, it’s not the preserve of visibly powerful people – it’s a normal part of living in a community.
But if we are business owners, or we hold platforms, our social capital brings us a good deal of power, and a choice about how we use it. For me, social capital has enabled me to make friends, be part of some wonderful projects, and – crucially – make a living. If I am going to run a truly feminist, anticapitalist business, I need to ensure that I’m conscious and critical of the power dynamics that benefit me in all areas of my work.
My choice is to practice showing up to my social capital, and to use it consciously and ethically.