Last month, an article entitled “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting” went viral, receiving over 20 million views. The author, Julio Vincent Gambuto, wrote that powerful forces will soon be (are already) trying to convince us all to get back to business as usual:
“What is about to be unleashed on American society will be the greatest campaign ever created to get you to feel normal again. It will come from brands, it will come from government, it will even come from each other …”
Gambuto called on his readers to resist this seduction:
“From one citizen to another, I beg of you: take a deep breath, ignore the deafening noise, and think deeply about what you want to put back into your life. This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.”
I couldn’t agree more. So I was excited to read Gambuto’s follow-up essay, “The Gaslighting of America Has Begun”, which came out this month. But I was surprised and disappointed by what I read, nothing short of a call to return to the old normal:
“We are all Americans. And we are all capitalists. But we have seen capitalism falter in egregious ways over the course of the last 30 years. Those are the same 30 years in which the divide between us has widened so deeply. Here’s my call: Let’s work together to become responsible capitalists.”
Gambuto then proceeded to advocate for responsible consumerism (“Using canvas bags instead of plastic is cool!”) and voting (“There’s a time and place for marching in the streets, but …”). For Gambuto, apparently, these are radical ideas. But to me, they sound an awful lot like a return to business as usual.
Let me address Gambuto’s first glaring error …
We are not all capitalists.
Gambuto seems to think that being a consumer makes you a capitalist and putting “your sliced mango in a Whole Foods-branded non-plastic bag” makes you a “responsible capitalist”. But shopping does not make you a capitalist.
Neither does believing in capitalism. Believing that capitalism is good, as Gambuto clearly does, does not make you a capitalist. It’s a testament to the power of capitalism over our minds that so many of us think we are capitalists when we are not.
Capitalists are people who own “capital.” In the most simple terms, capitalists are people who own the businesses that employ people (or, increasingly, hire them as independent contractors to avoid paying benefits and taxes). Most people are not capitalists.
If you don’t own a business, then you are not a capitalist. Even if you are a business owner, if you don’t employ people and pay them wages, then you probably aren’t a capitalist either. What makes a capitalist a capitalist is exploitation. Capitalists exploit workers when they take the profit from a business and pay workers a wage instead of a fair share of the profits.
I say that as a capitalist myself. I am a partner in my law firm. I own a share of the business and receive a percentage of the profits. My firm employs other people and pays them a wage, while keeping the profits for the partners like myself. It is no different from what thousands of other businesses do, but it is still exploitation.
If you are being paid an hourly wage, you are being exploited by capitalists. Even if you are being paid a salary, if you are not receiving profit sharing, you are probably being exploited by capitalists.. And if you are being treated as an “independent contractor” for work that other people get paid a wage for, if you are part of the so-called “gig economy”, then you are really being exploited by capitalists.
Exploitation is inherent to capitalism.
Some of my readers may think that it’s unfair to say that capitalists “exploit” workers. But let’s think about it. Let’s say a person owns a business which makes some product or provides some service. In order to make that product or provide that service, they have to employ other people. The capitalist could not make a profit without the workers. But when the business owner sells their product or service to customers, they take the profit for themselves, and they pay the workers a wage, which is the same regardless of the amount of the profit. (That amount is often less than a living wage, but let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that it is a living wage.)
Here’s my question: Why does the business owner keep all the profit? Why are the profits not divided between the owner and the workers on the basis of their contribution? Or better yet: Why does the capitalist own the business in the first place? Why are not all the workers co-owners with the capitalist?
You may respond that the capitalist owns the business because they made the initial investment. Actually, they probably borrowed it from a bank, but for the sake of argument, let’s just say that they did in fact purchase the building or the inventory or whatever it is that they need to operate the business. Why does that entitle them to all of the profit? Isn’t the business just as dependent on the labor of the workers as it is on the initial investment of capital?
If you divided the profit up fairly, then the workers would receive some percentage of the profits. But instead, the capitalist keeps all the profits. That’s why being a capitalist is exploitative.
Without exploitation the whole capitalist system falls apart. Without the capitalist skimming the profit off the top, then you don’t have economic growth. And we must have growth. Or so we are told.
Incidentally, growth is also what is destroying the planet. What do you get when you combine an economic system premised on infinite growth and a planet that is finite? You get economic collapse and environmental collapse. This should be obvious. But somehow we’ve been fooled into believing that our economic system and our ecosystem can be separated. They can’t.
Know your enemy.
Now, you might object that the capitalist should keep all the profit because they take all the risk. But is that really true?
When an employee works for a company for 25 years and then that company goes bankrupt, they lose their income and their benefits. They may lose their retirement. They may find that they are unemployable because of their age or other circumstances. Can we really say that the worker didn’t risk anything by working for that company for 25 years?
When companies fail, isn’t it usually the workers, not the owners, who suffer the most? So, no, we are not all capitalists. Don’t let the capitalists fool you into thinking otherwise.
Someone once said that the reason capitalism still prevails in America is because workers don’t see themselves as exploited, but see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We all want to join the class of capitalists. We like to believe we can.[FN 1] But every year, the gap between the exploiters and the exploited grows. This is the inevitable result of a system built on the exploitation of the many by the few.
It’s important to note that there are degrees of exploitation. The owner of a small family business is as far removed from Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerman as they are from the poorest of the world. And I’m not saying capitalists can’t be good people. Some capitalists, like me, do work for social and environmental justice in their free time. You can be friends with a capitalist (contrary to the title of this essay).
But when it comes to work, we are taking advantage of you. Your interests and ours are not aligned. Which brings me to the second point:
There is no such thing as “responsible capitalism”.
Capitalism is inherently exploitative. There’s no way to do it responsibly. There is no responsible exploitation.
It’s not just workers who get exploited. Capitalists also exploit the planet and the web of life. According to a 1997 study of the value of the world’s “ecosystem services” and “natural capital” published in Nature, the value of everything we humans take from nature every year is about twice the global gross national product. That means that for every dollar of human labor expended, nature contributes two dollars. And only a small fraction of that every gets paid back to or “reinvested” in the planet’s ecosystems. (This way of thinking about nature–as economic transactions rather than relationships–is problematic. But it’s a helpful way to build a bridge to people stuck in a capitalist mindset.)
Because Gambuto confuses consumerism with capitalism, when he said we should be responsible capitalists, what he meant was that we should be responsible consumers. Which, of course, we should. Or at least try to be.
But consumers are only presented with a limited set of options, and sometimes there is no “responsible” choice in the marketplace. What’s more, “responsible consumerism” is really a privilege of people who have disposable income to choose the (usually more expensive) responsible option. Many people can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. Some people can’t afford either the mango or the canvas bag to put it in.
The whole notion of responsible consumerism shifts the focus off of industry and government, where it belongs, and puts it on individuals, who do not really have the power in a capitalist system. We’re not going to fix our economic and environmental problems by being more conscientious consumers. Even if we all did make the most responsible choices available in the marketplace, we would still have climate change, and we would still have economic inequality. The notion that we can shop our way out of the climate crisis by buying organic, or out of economic inequality by buying fair trade, is a marketing ploy. As Derrick Jensen has written, “the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.”
I agree with Gambuto, the pandemic has opened up a window of possibility, a sacred opportunity. Let’s not squander it on platitudes like “responsible capitalism” or shibboleths like voting. Let’s take this pause to consider our collective life. To ask ourselves hard questions. To consider the previously unthinkable.
Is capitalism really working for us? Or is it only working for those who are already rich? Is it really making us richer, in the fullest sense of the word? Is it making us happier, healthier, and more human? Or is it making us tired, sick, and resentful? Does it represent the part of us that we are most proud of? Or does it encourage the worst in us? And is it really the only option? Or do we have the courage and the imagination to find another way?
“The trouble is that we lived in a failed system. Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we’re going to have to change the system.”— Martin Luther King, Jr.
1. While I did work hard, I do not suffer under the delusion that I worked harder than other people who are less fortunate or that I achieved this success on my own. It was made possible largely by accident of birth–by being born White, male, middle-class, able-bodied, by being helped every step of the way by other people, and by sheer luck.
Credits: Image by by Joey Alison Sayers
3 thoughts on “You are not a capitalist. I am. And I am not your friend.”
While I agree with the sentiment, I don’t think this essay is going to persuade consumers, capitalists, or powerful politicians to become more responsible. But that’s what we want, isn’t? For people to be responsible in proportion to their power to effect change?
Or, in revolutionary style, do we want to strip power from the foolish, and hand it to the wise, while hoping that it won’t corrupt them? But to do that, wouldn’t we have to be powerful already?
There is a tiny sliver of overlap between the tiny group of people with significant power, and the tiny group of people with a well-developed sense of responsibility. But how many people in that minority of a minority are in agreement about what to do? How many are organized?
The forces of capitalism are organized and entrenched. It will take a comparatively stronger, or more capable, force to pry them loose from their power. And who will take their place?
So how do you reconcile being a capitalist, exploiting workers (to some degree or another) in being a partner in a private firm, with your stated goals of bringing about an awareness leading to positive environmental and social change?
You are clearly very self aware, but are nonetheless of the petite bourgeoisie, and have everything to lose if the system is truely reformed.
Why go into private practice at all, versus working for a non profit? Or being employed as say, a public defender? Do you rationalize that becoming a capitalist allows you access to resources (material or otherwise) which are otherwise unavailable to non-capitalist lawyers, and that you will be using your “ill gotten gains” for the public good? Robin Hood becoming a sheriff’s deputy in order to reform the system for the benefits of the poor?
Not being argumentative, just genuinely curious. Potentially being in a somewhat similar position as a professional in a different field, I have though about this conundrum a lot.
It’s a fair question, and I don’t know if I have a satisfactory answer.
1. I don’t think going to work for a non-profit necessarily solves the problem. While non-profits direct their profits to socially responsible causes, that doesn’t guarantee they’re not exploiting their workers. Workers in non-profits are paid wages and aren’t owners either.
2. I did choose my profession and my field of expertise before I became politically aware/active. Though that doesn’t explain why I stayed in it. The truth is that I enjoy the work (mostly), now that I am a partner and am not trying to climb the career ladder–and I’m good at it. I also really like being able to pay for college for my kids (I have two in college now) and not worry about being destitute when I retire.
3. I strive to make my profession serve my vocation. My job provides me with the freedom–both in terms of time and money–to support my activism and my writing. I also use my law degree to act as a legal observer at protests and to occasionally defend protesters who get arrested. (By the way, I’ve heard people who said who went into public defender work for the principle of the thing and they soon discovered that they were as much part of the system of mass incarceration as the prosecutors and the police.)
4. In partnership meetings, I consistently advocate for increasing the compensation and agency of employees. If I thought I could sell it, I would suggest making all the employees co-owners.
5. I don’t see the point of martyring myself to achieve some kind of personal purity. It wouldn’t change the system or really benefit anyone.
None of this is very satisfactory. I think that’s because there are no satisfactory answers to be found within a capitalist system. That’s why I tend to focus on system change over individual change.