It is the driving force behind many students enrolling at Harvard and immersing themselves in this mentally injurious environment as oppose to a less academically rigorous school, perhaps one that would have paid for their enrollment entirely. It is the reason for spending 14-hour days in a lonely and hot Wall Street office for Morgan Stanley during the most vibrant years of one’s life. It is the reason why Adam Smith has been more detrimental to the prolonged existence and prosperity of the human species than Adolf Hitler, HIV-AIDS, and trans-fat combined. It is the reason parents explicitly encourage their daughters to marry a doctor or a lawyer as oppose to, say, someone she loves or would like to raise a family with. It is the theoretical underpinning of the (theoretical) root of all evil. What I surreptitiously speak of, of course, is capitalism.
In our world today, nothing can possibly be considered more radical than being anti-capitalist. “Who doesn’t want to make money?” is what everyone from the local street pharmacist to George W. Bush would say. Capitalism rules our lives like one would not believe and not to participate in it is something that I struggle with everyday. Perpetuating this system that causes international strife including but not limited to war, famine, and genocide is something that is very nearly impossible to do unless one pulls a Henry David Thoreau and decides to withdraw from society (keep tempting me…I dare you). My critique of capitalism is far-reaching and deep but I will engender to explain what parts I can in hopes of bringing some of you future global oppressors to my side. The correct side. The human side.
(more in expanded post)
Capitalism is the underlying reason for many of the nation’s (and world’s, to a degree) negative “-isms” and must be destroyed in order to bring the others tumbling down as well. This economic theory holds profit as its chief bottom line, seeks to have the means of production (i.e. advanced machinery, tools, etc.) privately held by individuals, and wants these individuals to control the market as oppose to the representative state, or theoretically the general populace, in a democracy. Due to the fact that monetary capital or cash—a theoretical concept that is widely adhered to by oppressed and oppressive people alike the world over—is placed above the concerns of individuals, the impact that capitalist policies have on innocent populations and environments is obscene. An insatiable appetite for land, power, and money is what fueled the founders of the U.S. Government. The original U.S. Constitution (deemed little more than a business contract between select colonial elites by some) governed all within the borders of the novel nation though benefited only land-owning, White males. All women, Blacks, Native Americans, and poor Whites were excluded from the rights guaranteed in this capitalist document and, not surprisingly, I will demonstrate how this can be seen as the underlying reason for racism, sexism, and classism in our society today seeing as how our nation was founded on the elite minority setting laws and standards for the subjugated majority.
Capitalism’s relationship to racism is apparent in light of a little labor phenomenon commonly known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Prior to this period, the interaction between people from Africa and people from Europe may be deemed as just that—Europeans and Africans interacting. Even more specifically in the days back when city-states ruled the “known” world Romans interacted (read: violently warred) with Carthaginians. People noticed physical and pigmentation differences but deemed geographic and religious differences more important. One of the most eye-opening courses I’ve taken during my time here at Harvard was “Marxist Theories of Racism” taught by Tommie Shelby. This course posits that racism and capitalism’s developments are very closely related and racism may even be seen as a means of justifying the rabid capitalism that drove the Triangular Trade involving Europe, West Africa, and the “New World”. During the peak period of the slave trade in the early 19th Century capitalism was also rapidly developing and was employed by all of the major European powers plus a young though ambitious nation known as the United States of America. Increased pleas from abolitionists for the abolishment of slavery in light of moral and religious contradictions that arose from the forced subjugation, exploitation, rape, and murder of one group of people by a purportedly more “advanced” and civilized people had to be defended somehow. What these individuals decided to go by was a belief that the Black race (and all other “colored” races, in time) was inherently inferior to the White race. This also served to divide the labor movement as early as 1676 as White indentured servants and Black slaves were masterfully divided along racial lines while dually exploited by the ruling capitalist colonists. This shows that the capitalist practice of suppressing labor costs and unrests (often practiced by dear Harvard University) is not anything new at all but goes back hundreds of years, just as corporations try to divide labor movements along racial lines.
Capitalism’s connection to sexism is apparent in light of the fact that the main parties involved in the development and spread of capitalism have been males while women’s roles in business and high levels of government have been historically scarce. This is despite the fact that, as is the case today, women made up the majority of the world’s population. The reasons for women not being active players in the game of capitalism are numerous, but a few of the most salient are: (1) women weren’t well educated in colonial America (the first women’s college in the “New World” wasn’t founded until 1837) when capitalism was rapidly expanding, (2) women are charged with domestic tasks and largely unable to explore outside vocations due to the rigors and personal constraints inherent to these tasks, and (3) women are socialized to be more passive than men and capitalism involves vicious and contentious competition (very unladylike, you know). All of these contribute to the fact that capitalism is a sexist practice with sexist results such as the fact that women make up 90% of all sweatshops workers. No economic development or wealth building there. In order for the land-owning White males who founded America to retain their superior position socially, financially, and politically through capitalism women HAD to be oppressed. They were the chief competitors of these males since they did own land (even if through inheritance or marriage only) and were White.
Capitalism’s connection to classism is apparent in light of the fact that capitalism widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots in society through a division of labor that is predicated upon a capitalist ruling class owning the means of production. By owning the means of production, the capitalist ruling class attracts labor to work for what is easily considered chump change when compared to the end price of some of the products produced. For example, Nike’s sweatshop workers in nations with ridiculously cheap labor such as Indonesia (where Nike operates 47 facilities) can work for anywhere for 10 to 20 cents per hour while producing sneakers that often sell for +$100. Assuming that these Indonesian workers only worked for eight hours a day (yeah, right) they wouldn’t even make enough money to buy a bag of potato chips in a snack machine at Harvard after eight hours of arduous and meticulous labor for Nike. Nike now actually publishes the names and addresses of all of their “contracted factories” (their term in place of sweatshops) in the world. This system perpetuates classism by disconnecting the wealthy from the poor, privileged from oppressed, employer from laborer and allowing misconceptions from one group of individuals about another to go unchecked. Also, working from a definition of classism describing the belief of people in one socioeconomic group of their superiority to those in another such group, capitalism does not allow for the distribution of wealth across a population that would make this definition null. Capitalism pillages poor peoples and nations and feeds their best to corporations and their investors whether “their best” be minds (through the brain drain), bodies (through labor), or souls (through cultural exploitation; i.e. Elvis making rock & roll “White music”).
Capitalists are able to maintain this system of extracting the cheapest labor possible while constantly increasing their profit margins through the fostering of a society of fear that is predicated upon the belief in the necessity of money for one’s prosperity in life. This belief is highly false. Numerous societies have functioned without money, a prime (even WESTERN) example being that of ancient Sparta whose residents experienced unimaginable pleasure, devoted lots of time to leisure activities, and ERADICATED crime through the expulsion of money, precious metals, and gemstones. If you took a random sample of elderly, wise individuals throughout the nation most would count family and health as the most important things in life. Not money (this was probably realized after many years of pursuing it without happiness or personal fulfillment). Few people can plausibly visualize a world without money or where capitalism was not the dominant economic system. The confused looks that people give me when I tell them that I’m trying to visualize a political, social, and economic world that is not under the dominant foot of capitalism is sad. Too many people operate under the belief that since capitalism is the game that is currently being played we must all play by the rules. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
Recently in my Social Psychology class taught by Ron Butzlaff (Psychology 15) a movie of an ingenious psychological experiment by Stanley Milgram was played. In the experiment, one participant (called a “teacher”) and another participant (called a “student”) were instructed to take part in an oral exercise with punishment in the form of electrical shocks administered by the teacher every time the student got a question wrong. As the exercise went on the voltage was to be increased by 15 with every subsequent wrong answer with a range of 15 to 450 volts (note: lethality from electrical shock is somewhere between 100-250 volts). Various markers at different intervals of voltage had different labels from “Slight Shock” to “Danger: Severe Shock” and the final two markers at 435 and 450 volts were ominously labeled “XXX”. In the majority of cases, the teacher began the test as normal and had no problem administering shocks to the student. Due to the fact that they were in different rooms, the teacher could not see the student. However, after a certain level of voltage (say 175) the teacher would hear the student exclaim in pain and consequent shocks resulted in the student screaming and asking to be let out of the experiment. The teacher would often turn to the experimenter, the person in charge of the experiment, and make a plea on behalf of the student to stop the experiment since the student was being hurt and asking to be released. The experimenter would encourage the teacher to continue and the teacher did in the majority of the cases. In continuing, the teachers administered progressively higher voltages ALL THE WAY UP TO 450 Volts in 65% of the cases and not a single teacher stopped before 300 volts. After the experiment was over, the teachers were informed about the true purpose and happenings of the study; namely that the study was meant to measure the obedience of a subject (the teacher) to an authority figure (the experimenter) in light of inflicting extreme pain, suffering, and even death to an individual, possibly deemed as subordinate (the student), on command. Also, the student was actually an actor and had not been electrocuted at all during the course of the experiment.
This experiment mirrors capitalism and capitalist toolage in numerous ways. Far too often capitalist cogs adhere to their superior’s requests without asking a second question or digging deeper into what their actions are actually bringing about in relation to the well-being of another—often distant, darker, and poorer—party. When the direction comes from an authoritative figure (i.e. a departmental supervisor) the employee is very likely to try and complete the action despite whatever misgivings they may personally have about the work. The disconnect between these cogs and the people they harm, unlike in the Milgram experiment, is often much further and deeper. A capitalist doing consulting for Nike in Manhattan cannot hear the screams of pain from the 10 year-old in Shanghai whose finger is dismembered from a machine after the child is fatigued from working on it for the past several hours straight. Even if they could, would they stop their actions in light of the above experiment? Sadly and remarkably, probably not. In this case, capitalism would be that experimenter in the back telling them “Continue”, “The experiment requires you to continue, please go on”, and “You have no choice, you must continue”. We always have a choice. Once enough people realize that they DO NOT have to choose the route of capitalism, myriad other communally beneficial roads will fortuitously open up to a better or truly more advanced society.