Editor’s Note: This piece is part of The Sun’s dueling columns feature. In this feature, Darren Chang ’21 and Jade Pinero ’19 debate, “Is capitalism good?” Read the counterpart column here.
For a lucky few trust-fund babies and Horatio Alger protagonists, capitalism is great! For almost everyone else, capitalism ensures a crippled existence, devoid of agency, entirely contingent on one’s continued productive utility. Also, notably, free two-day shipping.
Many people don’t really know what capitalism is, because if they did, they’d be against it. The obfuscation of its grotesque nature is deliberate; its revelation would necessarily catalyze the system’s collapse.
Capitalism is not a mode of production, as we are often led to believe. It is not capitalism that drives innovation, expands consumer choice or balances supply and demand, but instead the market — exchange between sellers and buyers — that creates these benefits.
Capitalism is actually a mode of ownership. It’s a system in which businesses are privately owned, and raw materials, machinery and wage labor are considered inputs for the owner’s production. Wage laborers, unlike inanimate inputs, occupy a hierarchy, but the system sees all inputs the same — disposable and interchangeable. Markets can exist without capitalism; co-ops, for example, reflect a mode of ownership in which workers are not inputs, but owners in their own right.
Workers are told two lies to ensure they don’t realize capitalism is not, in fact, good.
The first — capitalism tricks you into thinking you own things. You don’t.
Unless you are one of the fortuitous members of the owning class, you are owned. Fail to pay your mortgage or rent? Foreclosure or eviction. Car payments lapse? Vehicle’s repossessed. Have a paying job? At any moment, you could be let go, and there’s an 80 percent chance you’re financially ruined. In the job market? You must sell yourself, begging employers for the opportunity to generate revenue for them.
Oh, and if you have employer-provided health care, it is only by your boss’ goodwill that you and your kin remain alive.
Defending capitalism once cognizant of this total ownership is insane — it’s as if Oliver Twist, subsequent to being slapped for requesting supplemental soup, proceeded to traipse about the workhouse defending the master’s right to soup-related abuse.
The second — capitalism tricks you into thinking you earn a fair wage. You don’t.
Let’s say you work at a sandwich shop making $10 an hour. You make 10 sandwiches every hour at $10 each. If we are being generous, we might estimate that each sandwich costs $2 in raw materials and $2 in fixed costs (building, advertising, etc). Each hour, you’re generating $60 in profit, but you’re only earning $10. Is the owner really worth five times as much as you?
You might be thinking that you’ll earn plenty of money, so this doesn’t affect you. It does.
Given the long workdays, entry-level analysts at big banks earn roughly $20 an hour. JPMorgan Chase rakes in $8.1 million in profits hourly. You sacrifice your health, your relationships — your youth! — on research and slide decks for billion-dollar deals, yet earn the paycheck of a Tallahassee Olive Garden manager. You, too, have been bamboozled!
The disparity between pay and value generated is obscene, as evidenced by seven seasons of Undercover Boss, the reality show where executives attempt — and fail miserably at — jobs in their own companies. An entire series rests on the humorous certainty that exorbitantly paid executives, with the fates of thousands on their shoulders, can’t do basic tasks.
This realization precludes any admiration or defense of these suits; those who advocate on their behalf evoke the montage of sycophants deifying Regina George in 2004’s cult classic Mean Girls.
So, is capitalism good?
It’s sure been good to the big banks, which are bigger now than before the Great Recession. It’s been good to CEOs, who now earn every day what the average worker makes in a year. It’s been good to the 26 people who own as much as 3,800,000,000 other people.
And chances are, if you’re reading this piece, capitalism will be decent to you, too.
You’ll probably never have a jet, but you’ll be comfortable. You’ll have your “just-for-fun” car, your Casa de Campo vacations and your kid’s prep school tuition. You will keep quiet to preserve them.
But capitalism’s been bad to a lot of people. Capitalism gave us slavery, because it’s cheaper not to pay people; imperialism, because it’s cheaper to own countries than trade with them; and patriarchy, because it’s cheaper to oppress women than compensate them for the social value of child-rearing and homemaking.
Capitalism is bad for the millions of families struggling to put food on the table. It’s bad for the folks who ration medication; it’ll be worse for those who die because of it. It’s bad for the workers no longer included in unemployment numbers because they gave up looking; it’ll be worse for their children, who’ll see only defeat where they should see hope.
No, capitalism is not good, especially not for the vulnerable.
But a society that sees people as parents, children, students, teachers, creators and innovators instead of labor inputs? That seeks to maximize shared bounty instead of shareholder value? That gives workers a stake in production, allowing them to become self-actualized instead of alienated?
That might be good.
For those who remain unconvinced of capitalism’s evils, I offer an honest parting thought.
Worshipping at the altar of your oppressor might gild your cage, but in the end, you won’t beam with pride remembering how you sided with predatory loan servicers when they started monetizing orphan children’s tears, because, and I quote, “That’s the free market, baby.” Someday, when you’ve been pacified by ample comforts, remember that your apathy allowed suffering to go unaddressed, and your disdain for rabble-rousing let the wicked cash in on misery unchallenged. Remember that you, too, are still unfree — and even if you have something to lose, nothing’s worth having while you’re in chains.
Jade Pinero is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.