Capitalism has a very very dark side, full of anger and greed and hate. But do we want Empire Strikes Back...or Return of the Jedi? I vote for the latter. And I apologize on my inability to refrain from comments about Star Wars whenever anyone brings up the phrase: Dark Side. Even me.
Anyhow, this week in Adventures in Higher Learning entailed me giving a persuasive 15 minute speech to my class, about the topic of Capitalism. And here's what I said:
So I have a few questions for you, and think about whether or not these are questions you've been asking yourself lately too: Are we entering a recession or already in one? Are we headed for the Great Depression Part 2? Is the cost of living going to get even higher?
But when we're thinking of these things, when Bush is passing a $700 billion dollar financial bailout plan, we're thinking of the symptoms. None of us are really considering the real issue: our economic system, capitalism - which is one that quite honestly hasn't proven to be particularly efficient or successful. It's actually failed several times: in the US, currently and in the Depression, in Asia, currently and in the Asian financial crisis of the late 90s, and during the economic recession of Western capitalist countries in the early part of this decade.
So what is capitalism exactly? To define it, capitalism is the economic system in which the means of production are owned by private persons, and operated for profit and where investments, distribution, income, production and pricing of goods and services are predominantly determined through the operation of a free market, rather than by central economic planning. Technically, production of capital and assets are supposed to be governed by the free market, but unfortunately, what sounds like it might work on paper often fails in practice.
Not many people really consider what exactly capitalism means, or rather, what it means to them. A lot of people think that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand. But although they ARE associated, definitively they're totally independent of each other. Nominally we have a democratic government, and a capitalist economic system. We hear all the time that we live in a democratic society, but we really don't, we live in a capitalist society. The government we have is only one aspect of our society, especially when it comes to what we deal with in our lives on a daily basis. That's where the capitalist aspect of society comes in - which is really the predominant part. Democracy and capitalism can hardly go hand in hand when our economy isn't exactly democratic either. If it were it would mean that we all would have an equal say on how the resources were distributed, instead of now, where those who have the most capital (in this case, corporations) decide how everyone will work, plus they own most of the land and large portions of the media, so they also affect the ecological and psychological aspects of our environment.
What does this mean exactly? It means that the economic system in our society actually has more influence on our day-to-day lives than our government. It means that its economics that decides who has control over the capital, the resources, how they're used, and what people have to do every day to survive. And what does this mean to YOU more specifically? It means that your opportunities to work and earn money are controlled by corporations because it takes resources to make more resources, and not many of us when we graduate will actually have resources with which to build upon to make money with. So you're essentially at the mercy of those that do have those resources, because the only resource you have to use is that of your time and labor, which you have to sell in order to survive. But selling your time and labor to the highest bidder just reinforces their power, since as we all know, most of us are overworked and underpaid, because it's in a corporation's best interest to pay you as little as they can get away with. That's how they make money off of you and your labor. Of course, with our version of capitalism here in the United States, we all have the opportunity to “make it”, to succeed, to own our own business and make tons of money. But the problem with that is it’s just an opportunity. It’s a chance. And in the economy of today, October 2008, is that the little guy trying to take on big business has a very low chance of actually making it, any SBA loans from the government you could have gotten a few years ago to start a business are now funds being allocated towards all the big business that failed and needed that bailout.
This aspect of capitalism to me is the worst of all. Because most people spend their lives doing whatever pays the most instead of doing what they'd really like to be doing. You trade your time and labor for your dreams and material possessions. Sure you can buy stuff to make yourself feel better - what they now call retail therapy, but can you actually ever buy back the time you spent at work? No, and all you have to show for it is the bills you have to pay. Capitalism makes people value material things, rather than free thought and actions, and the ability to spend your time doing the things you want to do. So you focus on what you have, instead of what you do, and you spend your life competing for those things against other people like you in the workforce so you can survive and gain those status symbols.
And this is not to say that competition is a bad thing. It's not at all. The way capitalism has evolved, we're all competing in the free market and this does encourage productivity, but it rewards material productivity above everything else, which doesn't give corporations any reason to care about the environment and wildlife in the pursuit of making money. And since our competitive free market encourages this attitude, that just means that, in what's called "planned obsolescence" we get lesser quality products so we have to keep buying new ones to replace them. We don't get the products that are most relevant to our lives and our happiness, but the products that are easiest to sell and are the most profitable.
As a domino effect this also means that those corporations that do the best job of convincing us that we need their products make the most money. That's why Coca-Cola and Pepsi, who make essentially useless products, are so huge. They aren't successful because they made things that had some real value to society, or even by making the best tasting or healthiest drinks, but because they are the best at advertising their products.
Yes, there are a few people who get paid to do what they've always wanted to, and we're always told these stories to give us the false hope that one day we can be like them if we work really hard...and if we don't end up like them then that just means that you didn't work hard enough. Realistically though, we can't all be rock stars or professional athletes, because who would produce the records, and who would sell all those athlete's shoes? But let's say you end up one of those lucky people, sure, you made it, but do you really want to live in a world filled with disgruntled people who never got to live their dreams or maybe never even got to have any?
Donald Trump said it best: To be rich today is merely to own the largest number of meaningless objects - to possess the greatest amounts of poverty.
I personally believe that people would be happier overall in a society where they were encouraged to value their ability to really think and do what they want to do. But to get there we all need to stop competing against each other and work together and share the resources. We need to be truly free to choose the lives we want to live without being afraid of all the things we're afraid of now. We can't be subject to a dog eat dog mentality, to the cutthroat competition of corporate America, because that just encourages greed and selfishness. We need to embrace an economy that is based on each person being able to do what they want with their lives and offer others what he or she is most qualified to offer. Resources could be shared by everyone and exchanged, like fair trade, or a barter system, rather than hoarded by the privileged few. And I'm not advocating some idea of utopian communism per se; let’s take for example the Soviet Union's economy. Their practice of communism was in fact somewhat similar to Western capitalism, no matter what they might have thought about it. They too, ended up exploiting their workers and the environment. In their case however, the government controlled the resources exclusively. In Western capitalist societies, the corporations do. And the Soviet Union's competition was on a larger scale; they competed against other countries and governments instead of other people in the workforce. I will concede though that the one good thing about Western capitalism as opposed to communism is that while in Soviet Russia everyone worked for the government and was “equal”, in capitalist societies you still do have the chance to succeed individually, regardless of how small that chance may be.
Think about it. When you truly love someone and are loved by them, whether its a friend, a relative, or a significant other, you're valued for who you are, not what you're worth. You give and you're happy to do it, and happy to receive. Often it seems like you’re happier to give and spread some joy than to receive. Seems like we get more out of our personal equal exchange oriented relationships than out of a capitalist society in general...so couldn't this private aspect of our lives be applied to society as a whole? When you live with roommates you get along with, don't you all share the responsibilities of cleaning and taking out the trash? Why do we need different classes and types of workforces, when all that does is just to enforce class differences? Why can't we provide for our own needs without being forced to by an outside authority? It's almost as if we're all just children that need to be told what to do and given “rules” to follow.
People might say that capitalism does work for some people, namely the rich and the corporations, but I think it’s in everyone's best interest, even them, to do away with it. After all, they only succeed by trying to stay ahead of the competition, and if they falter for a moment, then they get trampled under, too. Aren't freedom of thought and action worth more then material possessions, or shouldn't they be? It doesn’t seem they are, which means then our society is really in the depths of true poverty. We can’t see everyone else as part of a group, like the "masses" or the "workforce" or the "rich". The masses are made up of people. The workforce is YOU and your co-workers, your friends and families. The rich aren't any happier or living more worthwhile lives than anyone else. We need to start realizing that we’re all people, and that we need to work together to pursue our freedom.