“We’re all capitalists.” It’s a phrase that gets thrown out to knock down critiques of capitalism. Along with it comes remarks about where people who think capitalism is flawed buy their groceries, or their clothes, or the smart phone they’re typing their tweet on. We all participate in capitalism. It’s the water we’re all swimming in. That’s not the same as being a capitalist, though. The level of discourse on this has to be raised because of how quickly the world is changing.
Something I’ve been writing about more is climate change. I’d steered clear of the topic for a while, because I wasn’t sure how to wrap my arms around the magnitude of it and share my thoughts in a meaningful way. Nevertheless, it crept into some of my more popular Medium essays, and I’ve committed to writing about it more. Climate change turns every discussion about economics (which at its root is about resources and their distribution) into a discussion about saving the planet. Environmentalism isn’t just for the granola-eating hippies or something you grow out of after university. We’re talking about the fate of the planet. This is literally about our survival. Individuals can’t fix this. Governments have to. And the scale of international cooperation needed is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. The required level of urgency can’t be achieved, though, because to address climate change is to reject capitalism. That conversation isn’t happening at the level it needs to for several reasons. Of course, monied interests are doing everything in their power to stop it, but it’s deeper than cynicism. This is about belief.
Unfettered growth. Ever-increasing consumption. It’s what we’re being told is necessary, but it’s obvious that’s not possible in a world of finite resources. We’re cancer patients being told the spreading tumors are essential for our well-being. We’re being told the markets will fix things. That’s the equivalent of faith healing. We are dealing with a secular religion — powerful, cult-like thinking. It’s why I don’t think economics as a discipline is equipped to deal with discussions of climate change in a meaningful way, because it can’t divorce itself from capitalism. As it’s taught and practised, capitalism is the default, the starting point. It’s baked into the cake. This means certain questions that should be mainstream don’t ever really get discussed. Questions like: Should this particular resource even be consumed? These basic, fundamental ethical questions aren’t even being jettisoned, because they were never taken on board in the first place. The assumption is that as long as there is someone willing to buy whatever comes out on the other end, the answer is “Yes. Consume. Produce. Sell.” Capitalism skips too many steps in the analysis. Markets are short cuts. And short cuts draw blood.
I understand the fear that rises up when capitalism is questioned. The propaganda for it and against anything challenging it has been unrelenting and effective. It’s deeper than what people believe or don’t believe, though. In a real way, being a “capitalist” is an integral part of many people’s identities. So much so that the slightest challenge to it, any question that it isn’t “the best” is taken as a personal attack. It may even go so far as to pierce people’s psyches and sense of self. “Winning” under capitalism is what determines people’s worth. Our egos and self-esteem are tied up in it. Now that the Golden Age of capitalism is winding up, and we’re in a new Gilded Age, there are too many losers. It’s why there’s so much striver and “hustle!” porn all over social media. It’s propping up the belief that a collapsing society is the fault of the people not being served by it. The winners — the people hoovering up all the wealth — have made this about willpower and determination for the people trying to climb the ladder. Not being paid enough to live on makes someone a “loser” not a victim of wage theft. Deep, systemic failures have been shifted onto the backs of individuals, many of whom can barely make ends meet. It’s grotesque.
Being a “capitalist” isn’t about owning capital so much as it is subscribing to an ideology. The less capital you own, the more important the ideology is. Billionaires are all on the dole, taking handouts, tax breaks, and reimbursements left, right, and center. And they don’t just take them. They demand them. They bribe. They threaten. They twist arms. They get governments to bail them out when they lose. While the “winners” are forever being granted concessions and shown mercy, the “losers” are being told to try harder, that their “failure” makes them deserving of their suffering. They’re told that a Calvinistic work ethic and all the self-effacement that comes along with it will make their lives worthwhile. Meanwhile, they can’t afford their medication.
I’ve had “capitalist” in quotes, because many of the staunchest defenders of capitalism don’t own any capital and never will. They’ve all been told they’re members of a club that doesn’t allow them entry. Maintaining that level of cognitive dissonance requires magical, almost delusional, thinking. So, no, we’re not all capitalists. We’ve been propagandized into believing we are. I don’t know what it will take to break the spell.
Originally published on my Patreon.