Trust me, you want to be angry about this.
I know you’ve seen it somewhere on social media. You’ve come across a tweet that in summary says ‘capitalism is bad’ with some thousand re-tweets. I’m here, as a fellow member of Gen Z, to break it down.
I can sum up capitalism in two parts: its an economic system that can be discerned by specific characteristics, which are conditioned by other elements. This is going to be a mouthful, so hang in there, but it is important to understand what capitalism means before we get into how it sucks. (I know this should be an academic article and all, but if the shoe fits…).
Characteristics of capitalism include: “private ownership of means of production, social class structure of private owners and free wage earners — which is organized to facilitate a hoarding of profit by private owners, and the production of commodities for sale. Conditioning elements are a certain division in labor, institutional arrangements to insure a dependable supply of wage labor, a degree of social productivity sufficient to permit sustained investment, commercial organization of the market whose scope is adequate to the productivity of the community, a political process whereby economic power can become translated into governmental policy, legal structure that is protective of private property, and a certain toleration of new ways to make a living.”¹ Trust me, I get it — that was a lot (I warned you), but please bear with me; you want to know this.
Gen Z just isn’t angry enough. They aren’t scared enough — they are comfortable. Before I get called a ‘boomer’ for this, I am a member of Gen Z myself. My peers are comfortable in ignorance — but this can not go on. I mean that literally by the way, it is just not sustainable. American capitalism exploits the working class by paying them less in order to boost profits, creating a discrepancy in wealth; the proletariate class is doing most of the work, but taking home significantly less in profit than the economy’s top one percent.
Even the most uninformed of us all have heard a bit about philosopher and economist, Karl Marx. Maybe in a sociology 101 class or twitter, when he’s being referenced it’s usually a conversation about capitalism.
Marx referred to the “frenzy in the early capitalist states of Europe for gold, for slaves, for products of the soil…as ‘the primitive accumulation of capital’.”² This ‘frenzy’ occurs as a result of the pressure felt by the early colonizers to satisfy debts to stockholders and bondholders that paid for their expeditions. In other words, early capitalists’ exploitation of others can be attributed to self preservation — in order to eliminate scrutiny of returning home from an expedition empty handed, it is a necessary evil to pillage others. Marx’s idea ‘the primitive accumulation of capital’ is important to consider. It emphasizes the notion that the capitalist system in place today at its core best serves the one in power, not the many.
By the 17th century, John Locke and Thomas Hobbs argued an individual’s proprietorship over his or her own person determined his or her worth, and implied a lack of any debt. By owning one’s self, one owes nothing to society. This conception is referred to as “possessive individualism; I own therefore I am.”³ In turn, people economically dependent on others are not truly free. (Spoiler: chances are you are economically dependent on others.) The more you own, the higher your worth. But we already knew this, right? Probably because it’s a philosophy developed in the 17th century. This belief led to a rapid increase in a battle for capital between men (in the 17th century), and the market served as their battlefield. Soon, a man’s identity, individuality, and worth become warped and reliant on the amount of property he possesses. Hm, nothing like that seems to happen today, we’ve grown out of our 17th century ideals!
As a result of this competitive market, soon people can’t imagine not striving towards the possession of more property — he is not himself, he is what he owns. This alienates people from their true self, and in the pursuit of power and wealth, you pay for it with your own sense of self. Capitalism enforces the notion one is not a valued member of society unless he or she owns or produces wealth (without economic dependence on someone else).
The British Privy Council of 1722 explained, “Where the king of England conquers a country…the conqueror, by saving the lives of the people he conquered, gains a right and property in such people, in consequence of which he may impose upon them what laws he pleases.”⁴ Although the council wasn’t addressing slavery in this statement, it quickly became misconstrued and lead to the development of, you guessed it, the slave trade.
The American economic system is built on the possession of private property; so it is only natural this notion extended to the possession of human beings, right? As man becomes more ambitious and hungry for property, the idea of selling labor took a whole new meaning. Why sell your own labor for money, when you can invest in a couple of humans to do the work for you? (Anything ringing a bell yet?) American men saw the buying and selling of another human being simply a way to maximize profits. Under slavery, exploitation is no secret; it is announced boldly for all to hear. It is a simple relationship: The exploited forcefully fulfills the labor needs of those in power in exchange for survival. Under modern capitalism however, it is not so black and white.
The distinction between the terms labor and labor power are important in understanding exploitation under capitalism. “…According to Marx’s analysis, unlike machinery, raw materials and other inanimate inputs that pass on their value to the product but create no new value, labor-power is a ‘special commodity…whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value.’ In other words, workers produce new value contained in the final product, which belongs to the capitalist.”⁵ When a capitalist compensates a worker, he or she is not paying for the value of the amount of work completed, but labor power. We see this in the inequality in present society; the wealth that workers create increases, but is not reflected in wages. Instead, an increasing proportion of the wealth produced by workers swelled the pockets of those in economic power, who did not compensate the workers for their increased production on the job.
“In 2019, the ratio of CEO-to-typical-worker compensation was 320-to-1 under the realized measure of CEO pay; that is up from 293-to-1 in 2018 and a big increase from 21-to-1 in 1965 and 61-to-1 in 1989. CEOs are even making a lot more — about six times as much — as other very high earners (wage earners in the top 0.1%).”⁶
Advocates for capitalism argue there is no effective alternative economic system, because the competitive ambition bred from capitalism is ‘human nature’ or ‘inevitable’. Capitalism is the only successful economic system. Capitalism tells the proletariate class (you and I, unless you belong to the top 1%) that worth lies in our capital, so we sell what offers the most profit: ourselves, or our labor, rather. For the sake of survival, it is apparent one looking for work will accept (almost) anything to keep food on their table.
“Workers under capitalism are compelled by their lack of ownership of the means of production to sell their labor power to capitalists for less than the full value of the goods they produce. Capitalists, in turn, need not produce anything themselves but are able to live instead off the productive energies of workers.”⁷
Owners of corporations sit on hoards of wealth, but profit by underpaying those desperate for survival. “Between 1990 and 2020, the U.S. billionaire class has seen its net worth increase over 1,130 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. median household net worth between 1989 and 2016 grew by a mere 5.37 percent. Billionaire wealth has grown 210 times faster than median wealth.”⁸
The denial of proper compensation, and the huge gap in wealth as a result literally denies the working class capital. How is today’s exploitation of the working class not parallel to using a slave to profit from their labor?
Capitalism exploits the working class by paying them less in order to maximize profits, creating a discrepancy in wealth; the working class is doing most of the work but only possess a fraction of the wealth. It’s happened for centuries, and it will continue without a revision of the U.S. economic system; capitalists will step on and exploit anything possible for profit, even human beings.
“The population now falls into two main classes: those who own wealth invested in large holdings and who thereby control the conditions of life for the rest; and those who do not own wealth in sufficiently large holdings, and whose conditions of life are therefore controlled by others”.⁹
Capitalism exploits the working class, which is experienced since the institution’s early development, and it always will — there is no form of capitalism with the purpose of advocating for equal economic success for all. In order to create an equal economic playing field for all classes, a new system must be explored.
Here’s where I got this info if you’re wondering:
- “A Short History of American Capitalism”, Meyer Weinberg, New History Press, 2002,
- “A People’s History of the United States”, Howard Zinn, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999, Pg. 12.
- “The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke”, C.B. Macpherson, Oxford University Press, 1990, Pg. 3.
- “British Statuses in American Law”, Elizabeth G. Brown, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Law School, 1964, Pg. 11.
- “What Do We Mean by Exploitation?”, Gary Lapon, International Socialist Organization, 2011.
- “CEO compensation surged 14% in 2019 to $21.3 Million”, Lawrence Mishel and Jori Kandra, Economic Policy Institute, 2020.
- “Exploitation”, Matt Zwolinski and Alan Wertheimer, Metaphysics Research Lab Stanford University, 2017.
- “Billionaire Bonanza 2020: Wealth Windfalls, Tumbling Taxes, and Pandemic Profiteers”, (Chuck Collins, Omar Ocampo, and Sophia Paslaski), Institute of Policy Studies, 2020, Pg. 1.
- “The Vested Interests and the State of the Industrial Arts”, Thorstein Veblen, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985, Pg. 107.