I have spent the last 15 years unlearning capitalism and uncovering its influence on my behaviors and beliefs. I used to be hard on myself about spending money. If I wanted a treat, I’d go through all the ways I could justify my purchase. Then once the money was spent, I’d feel guilty. I should be more responsible, I’d think. I should just work harder.
Never mind the jobs I worked at the time weren’t paying living wages. Never mind that my rent continued to rise, while my wages stayed the same. Forget the fact the government enabled and encouraged low wages, as cost of living continued to rise. I was the problem. I just needed to be better, hustle harder and think bigger.
I’d been fed capitalism so long I believed I was the problem.
We’re a nation of underpaid people trying to survive while the richest among us become even more obscenely wealthy. Take Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose worth is estimated at $182 billion. He is so rich he could give a $105,000 bonus to every Amazon employee and be just as rich as he was at the start of the pandemic.
This can only happen in a capitalistic society, so it leaves me to think about the lessons I’ve learned about the system over the years. Here are a few ways capitalism obscures the truth about the haves and have nots and how it keeps us from actual class solidarity.
Lesson One: Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.
In my mid-twenties, I met a woman the same age who owned her own house. During our brief acquaintance, she made remarks that let me know she thought herself better than me because she owned her home, while I was renting an apartment.
Years later, as I began preparing in earnest to purchase a home of my own, I realized most of my homeowning friends got the 20 percent down payments from their parents.
After moving into my home, I realized many homeowners cannot afford the maintenance that comes along with homeownership. American culture demands you keep up appearances, and if you have to go into debt to do it, at least you don’t look poor.
Lesson Two: People love to count poor people’s money but refuse to think critically about how our nation ensures poor people stay poor.
One of America’s favorite pastimes is expressing collective disgust of poor people. It must produce a tiny hit of dopamine when people vocalize their feelings of superiority and disdain of poor people or what some call “unskilled workers.”
Try to have a conversation with someone about the eviction crisis. I’ve repeatedly heard, “If I was a landlord, you better have my rent and if not, you have to GO!”
People are blaming tenants for not being able to pay their rent during a global pandemic, but refuse to hold government officials—both federal and state—who’ve bungled the response at every turn responsible. Americans are not good at class solidarity. Imagine what could be if tenants and landlords got together and demanded a bailout like Wall Street and fortune 500 companies have.
It’s the same with unemployment benefits. When benefits were poised to expire, I found Facebook friends lamenting about how foolish the unemployed were for not saving their money and not returning to work sooner—again in a global pandemic.
“If you’ve been getting $800-$1000 a week from unemployment for the last 4 [sic] months, and you don’t have anything saved up and are now panicking because that extra $600 is about to end, that’s completely your fault,” someone said in a post.
I need more people to hate the capitalistic system that’s created corporations that don’t pay living wages, so shareholders and executives can reap the lion share of the benefits. Be curious as to how a person can make more on unemployment than working a full-time job because it’s not an accident; it’s exploitation.
Lesson Three: Suffering is a privilege. Because I had to “suffer,” you should too!
During the 2020 presidential campaign, a consistent talking point focused on the hardship of student debt. A ridiculous notion when you think about it. We frontload 18-year-olds with enormous amounts of debt before they understand how it will impact their financial decisions for decades. Then we blame them for getting expensive degrees we promised would make their career prospects better.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) proposed canceling $50,000 of student loan debt for “95% of student loan borrowers.” Ultimately, Warren lost in the democratic primaries, but her plan still finds support among progressive democrats who are encouraging Pres. Joe Biden to embrace the plan.
Biden has gone on the record saying, he “would forgive $10,000 in student debt for all borrowers.” But that hasn’t stopped people from wailing at the idea of student debt holders being given relief. This loud and wrong chorus says things like, “I worked hard to pay off my student debt. Where’s my handout?” or “I busted my butt to avoid college loans! Where’s my $50,000?”
These people ignore a litany of facts about the strain of student loan debt and how it affects people based on their race, gender and class.
According to CNBC, “Over the last decade, tuition and fees rose 44% at four-year, private colleges and by 55% at public four-year schools.”
The gender wage gap for women of color persists. Black women make $0.62 cents for every dollar white men make, so we make less money over time and ultimately have less to put toward paying off our debt.
The complaints come from people who believe themselves to be more responsible and diligent because they were able to pay off their student debt or refrain from having to take any on. They refuse to acknowledge the privileges of generational wealth, gender, class, race, the benefits of attending college before tuition costs exploded or that education should not put you in debt for decades.
Lesson Four: Asking for and expecting assistance from the government is only for those with no pride.
Ever heard someone tell a story about the time they refused to go on welfare?
The stories are always similar. It starts with a great hardship, a decision that asking for government assistance is not an option, and then they explain how they became determined to do anything and accept any work before they would lower themselves to ask for and accept government assistance.
You can almost picture the protagonist of the story standing in ruins of their life with a straight spine and a brow set with determination.
It’s the American notion of individualism and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps wrapped up in patriotism.
We have been taught, no matter what class you belong to, that needing government assistance is a sign of great weakness and moral failure. We’ve all been indoctrinated to believe this.
I left the United States Navy at the height of the Great Recession. Despite the need, I did not want to go on unemployment. At 22, I figured, “Why wouldn’t someone want to hire a veteran and a proven hard worker?”
Luckily, I had a few people talk me out of that notion, and I applied for unemployment. While I collected my checks, I worked at trying to secure full-time work and spent most of the time feeling useless. Much of my identity was rolled up in my life as a sailor, but more so about my ability to be productive.
It would be nine months, and a couple of false starts, before I’d find a full-time position.
Finally, I had somewhere to go every day, but it would only be a matter of time before I realized despite having a state job, I wasn’t being paid a living wage.
To create financial breathing room, I would have to attend college as a full-time night student to make ends meet with my GI Bill stipend. I’d keep up the pace of 14-hour days, every week, for almost three years with only two semesters off. I earned my associate degree, and a bout of exhaustion so strong it would take me a full year to recover.
Lesson Five: Kris Jenner works hard, but pop culture works harder to reinforce capitalistic beliefs and behaviors
Ever seen #TeamNoSleep or listened to a rapper rap about how they “hustle hard” or are just “built different?”
There’s nothing wrong with working hard. The problem is, working that hard, all the time, shouldn’t be the norm. A good life requires regular sleep, a living wage, healthcare, good food, time for friends, hobbies and fun! They shouldn’t be thought of as incentives for working ourselves into a daze.
We love a story about how someone sacrificed and worked their way into self-made wealth. The stories work as aspirational goal posts that make us think, “If they can do it, so can I.”
Pop culture bombards us with these tales, whether they’re true or not. It’s how we end up with cover stories about Kylie Jenner being a “self-made billionaire” and top 30 under 30 lists year after year that disguise the fact that many of these people had, and have, access to money, people, and institutions that hold power.
Being “self-made” is also code for doing it alone and ties into what I wrote about in lesson four. Asking for help when things go wrong is frowned upon. The bootstraps myth depends on the notion of super strength, making all the right decisions, and luck, but it fails to make room for humanity or how privilege and access to people and institutions benefits some over others.
I still sometimes want to tie my self-worth to my productivity, but these days I resist the urge. I deserve rest, kindness, fair wages, healthcare and more. We all do.
I hope the lessons I’ve shared help you extend empathy to yourself and inspires you to examine how capitalism influences your life. Because if you don’t, I can guarantee you that someone is making money off all of it. And I can tell you for certain it probably isn’t you or me.