Capitalism’s all-encompassing hold on the worker’s life has led to burnout and mass resignations, but our economic system remains unchanged, largely because we’ve yet to tap into our collective power.
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Discontent with capitalism is at an all-time high. Memes, tweets, and op-eds expose the problems of the system Americans live in: We work too much for not enough pay, and the billionaires who benefit from our labor keep getting richer while the general worker population burns out and struggles to make ends meet.
Enda Brophy, associate professor of the labor studies program at Simon Fraser University, says there’s more frustration with capitalism as a system now than at any time since perhaps the 1960-’70s. “Significantly, poll after poll tells us that younger generations and millennials above all have highly negative opinions of capitalism and highly positive opinions around socialism and trade unions,” Brophy said. “People are quitting jobs as they never have before and labor organizing is growing in unexpected industries.”
Research confirms this growing negative view of capitalism. One survey by Axios and Momentive indicated that 54 percent of Gen Z adults aren’t happy with the current economic system. The same poll also indicated that the number of 18- to 34-year-olds who have a positive view of capitalism also appears to be shrinking. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of resignations hit a new high of 4.5 million in September 2021. But the bureau also reports that there is a massive gap between labor demand and labor supply, particularly in industries where there has been wage stagnation like retail, leisure and hospitality, and healthcare. While it would be easy to say workers in these industries are tired of being underpaid for their work, economic experts are stumped by what this means. Though quitting is usually a sign of optimism, the sheer number of resignations and the labor demand gap are difficult to interpret, particularly after a global pandemic that shook up the most basic foundations of society. What’s clear is that generations of workers are wondering what else there could be to life outside of keeping themselves in a system that feels exploitative for most. Are we all stuck playing an economic game that only benefits the few, those who started with a privileged leg up, “get out of jail free” cards in the hole? Or can we reimagine capitalism, or commit to a new system entirely, that is more equitable and egalitarian?
Capitalism has been sold to workers as a meritocracy, where hard workers are rewarded with a better life, lifted from poverty into wealth. Supposedly, we all have equal footing as long as we keep our heads down and work. However, the persistent inequalities that populate the system are difficult to ignore. The minimum wage has been stagnant for a decade, closing the gender gap will take over 100 years according to the World Economic Forum, and student debt is consistently on the rise, with no loan forgiveness on the horizon. Capitalism adversely impacts people who need to work for a living and do not have existing wealth to pay for basic needs like shelter, food, and water. The system largely benefits bosses and CEOs who reap the profits of the labor done by workers. For Amelia Horgan, author of the book Lost in Work, capitalism’s defining feature—wage labor—is “a curtailment of the possibility of our lives. We can’t get our lives back without radically changing the very foundations of society.”
Brophy theorizes that younger generations who didn’t grow up with the ideological baggage of the Cold War are eager to question the argument that there’s no alternative to this system of neoliberalism. Indeed, there seems to be a general feeling that revolving our lives around working and making money might not be as worthwhile as we’ve been told it would be. As Horgan writes, “Work makes intense demands on us. Through work, our bodily—physical, mental, and emotional—capacities are used for profit. (…) While work can be dangerous, exploitative, or even just boring, all work under capitalism harms workers because of the coercion that pushes us into it, and the lack of control we face during it.” Brophy explains that capitalism affects everything we do, and that while we all have a level of complicity within it, the system dictates what’s possible. .
“Capitalism affects our life chances and the opportunities we have, most significantly to get a good education, to find a good job that pays well, and to achieve good health,” he explains. “At the same time we shouldn’t think of capitalism as something that is external to our lives—we are all bound up in it and thus complicit to different degrees with perpetuating it as a system which dominates our lives.” In recognizing this coercive relationship between work, income and survival, it’s impossible not to wonder: what would it be like to actually own our time and our talents instead of being forced to sell it off?
It isn’t surprising, then, that in the past few years, anti-capitalism is suddenly in vogue. Dr. Gemma Gibson, Ph.D., who researches online activism, points to the “Tax the Rich” dress that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore to the Met Gala as an example. ”We are seeing ideas in mainstream popular culture that do seem to be challenging capitalism but, as with many social movements, capitalism itself is defusing them,” Gibson said. “For many public personas, engaging with social justice has become necessary. We are seeing people start to question whether that anti-capitalist rhetoric is ‘genuine’ when it comes from people that perhaps have been pressured into it to remain competitive in a celebrity market.”
Gibson, whose work traces the capitalist co-option and diffusion of the fat positivity movement, explains that capitalism is an adaptable system of domination. “Anti-capitalism, like body positivity, is becoming a mask people can slip on and off depending on the context necessary,” she said. “This isn’t necessarily down to individual ‘fault’ but rather a system that knows how to diffuse and manipulate radical movements.”
Artist and leftist YouTuber Saint Andrew dubs this manipulation “vague anti-capitalism,” a sentiment expressed in popular media, activism, and online content that indicates a dissatisfaction, frustration, or opposition to how capitalism impacts our lives and our society—but doesn’t take it any further. “It’s a valid sentiment with a lot of potential, but unfortunately a lot of people seem to stagnate in that stage of political awareness,” Andrew explains. “When it comes to a global multilayered system of systems, it’s not enough to oppose, you also need to propose and actively work towards an alternative.” For Andrew, the problem with “vague anti-capitalism” is that it opposes the current system too broadly, without focusing on specific goals. Capitalism is escapable, he says, but only if power is harnessed collectively into alternatives that liberate everyone, not just a few privileged people. “Our labor collectively creates capitalism, we can absolutely put an end to it,” he said. “We can escape, but only collectively. There’s no individual way out.”
For Gibson, the anti-capitalist “trend” is a confrontation of contradictions between realizing capitalism only benefits a few people and what younger generations have been taught about working hard to achieve a better life. “It is easy for people who are struggling to buy houses and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to landlords to see that capitalism is a system that benefits only a few people,” she said. “That being said, the ‘lessons’ many of us have absorbed about meritocracy are hard ones to shake. There is a sense that if we keep working towards ‘success’ then we will eventually get there – although of course, for many of us, this is untrue.” Are we trapped playing a game we hate?
Capitalism, Gibson says, is “all encroaching” for workers. “You don’t get to ‘opt-out’ if you’re a worker in a capitalist society,” she said. “If you did, it wouldn’t work.” While she recognizes younger generations might be rallying around vague opposition to capitalism, Gibson emphasizes dissatisfaction with capitalism is here to stay. “What is clear is that there is a strong dissatisfaction with the contemporary political system and while capitalist media and discourse may be trying hard to diffuse or distract from that dissatisfaction it will persist.”
Though capitalism might feel inescapable now, Brophy says it’s important to remember that humanity has operated under other systems of societal organization before. “Feudalism and the divine right of kings must have seemed eternal but both crumbled over the centuries,” he reminds us. “And given the way capitalism has brought our planet to the brink of environmental collapse and generated unprecedented levels of exploitation and inequality we owe it to ourselves to explore alternatives that are more sustainable, ethical, and humane.”
In Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Mark Fisher writes: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Indeed, even writing this piece and trying to imagine other worlds while so inserted into this system, was an enormous challenge. While I am aware of all the pain and suffering capitalism has caused, the fear of the unknown is palpable—could we live in a society where the most marginalized people are free of chains? Or would societal collapse do more harm than good?
“The idea that our only choice is between capitalism and societal collapse is entirely false,” Brophy said. “It demonstrates how what we really need today more than ever is to unleash and rediscover what my colleague Max Haiven calls the radical imagination. During the 19th and 20th centuries, there was an incredibly rich discussion around what society should look like, featuring anarchist, socialist, and communist perspectives. We need to have that kind of discussion again in a new form.”
At this point, alternatives to how we live today are a matter of life and death for humanity. Being scared of alternatives to capitalism seems laughable when we face the possibility that capitalism itself might bring a societal and environmental collapse.“There is emergent interest in moving away from markets as the best way to allocate resources, exploring new ways to coordinate our economies from below in a more egalitarian fashion, and experimenting with more democratic forms of representation than liberal representative democracies currently offer,” Brophy said. “This could be called socialism but I think a distinction needs to be made between this possibility and the authoritarian forms of socialism that emerged in the twentieth century.”
According to Silvia Federici, the invention of capitalism required the elimination of self-sufficient communities and of any work that is not “profitable.” Indigenous civilizations across the world who had never heard of profit, wealth accumulation and exploitation lived for centuries without the mass casualties and traumas of capitalism. If we look at it from that angle, there are many alternatives to the system we live in today. But our opposition to the system cannot be vague, it has to be specific and true to collective liberation rather than individual gain. Everyone deserves to live a life full of love, abundance, and autonomy. In a post-capitalist world, nobody gets left behind.
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