The following analysis is classic Marxism. While it simplifies the complexity of reality by negating the psychological nature of human beings, it does make some very important points: people’s work and therefore their lives are strongly influenced by their work, which in turn is largely conditioned by our ‘economic’ system: capitalism. Our jobs depend on how much profit our employer wants to generate as well as on the larger systemic movements and cycles of the capitalist economy.
Losing our job therefore has often more to do with these external circumstances than our skills, commitment, willingness to work, etc.. And why then do we so often see it as personal failure when we lose our job? Because we are discouraged form understanding the nature of capitalism; understanding it could make us question it, and that could make as dangerous. So, we don’t get an education how capitalism works, and in addition, our attention is diverted to the trivial outputs of our society’s cultural production.
All of this is just one side of the picture, but one so important that we need to learn to understand it.
Anti-Capitalism as Suicide Prevention: Personal Worth Against Exchange Value and Corporate Thought Control
Recently I spoke to an acquaintance who happens to be a psychiatric nurse at a major hospital. She reports an epidemic of distraught people coming and brought into her facility’s emergency room in the wake of mental breakdowns and, often, suicide attempts. She’s seen more of this in recent months than in any previous time in her career.
I asked the obvious question: “is it the economy?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “Layoffs. Foreclosures. Bankruptcies. Evictions. Loss of health insurance since that goes out with the job. Divorces resulting from all of the above. They blame themselves.”
They blame themselves.
How tragically horrible but unsurprising. It’s wrong because the United States economy is under the control of a state-capitalist profits system that guarantees no real security to most of its majority working class population. As a prerequisite for being granted the money required to buy basic life necessities (food, clothing, housing, health care and more), that majority is compelled to rent out its labor power to a relatively small class of employers. But employers don’t hire and retain people unless it is profitable to do so. The right to rent one’s self out is contingent upon exploitation – on the existence of an employer-friendly gap between what the worker gets paid and how much the boss[es] can get above that payment. When there’s no profit to be made off workers, employees are sent packing. Beneath occasional nice severance gestures, it’s “See ya. Good luck, punk.”
As it happens, capitalism itself chronically makes it impossible for bosses to employee people profitably. Competition, technological displacement, capital flight (typically from higher to lower-wage zones of the world economic system), excess capacity, the collapse and closing of markets, periodic downturns in the “business cycle,” credit crises, the bursting of speculative asset bubbles, – all of these and other and interrelated factors make it inevitable that vast swaths of the workforce (or proletariat if you will) are periodically evicted from the workforce through no fault of their own. In big economic meltdowns like the current Great Recession (sparked by a collapse of artificially inflated real estate values and the deregulated hyper-financialization and systemic excess of capital lacking profitable productive investment outlets), the number of hardworking wage- and salary-earners who are turned into hapless job-seekers and discouraged unemployed (and suicides) is truly horrific. The profit system’s ever-present “reserve army of labor” (Karl Marx’s useful term) expands to absurd levels. Thousands show up when a fire department announces a handful of openings. Hundreds of unemployed (including people with advanced graduate degrees) apply when a local school district advertises a janitorial position. Millions of human beings are rendered officially redundant practically (it seems) overnight.
It is not their fault. This is how capitalism “works,” and it’s nothing new. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels explained in 1848, the profits system: “put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal tires that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’…It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in the place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single unconscionable freedom – Free Trade.” Along the way, Marx and Engels observed, that system and its many and diverse government agents created (through enclosure, expropriation, and labor-exploiting economies of scale that independent artisans could not match) a property-less working class majority whose members “live only so long as they find work and who find work only as long as their labor increases capital.” Working class people must “sell themselves piecemeal.” They (well, their labor power) “are a commodity like any other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market,” including recurrent “commercial crises” that help “make their livelihoods more and more insecure.”
The current unemployment epidemic, with its vast under-reported collateral damage, is consistent with the deeper story of “life” (and death) under the historically specific form of political economy called capitalism. It has nothing to do with the personal adequacy of those who are being pushed out of the workplace .
Sadly, there is little space for acknowledging these harsh historical and institutional realities in the dominant U.S. political and media culture. A political candidate or party who honestly takes up these critical questions has no chance of receiving the big money sponsorship and corporate media favor required to become “viable” in the American “dollar democracy” – the “best democracy that money can [and did] buy.” As Herbert Schiller noted 36 years ago in his neglected study The Mind Managers (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1973), the state-capitalist “elite” enlists its powerful, means of mass communication to keep any such understanding at bay. It seeks to engender endemic popular “passivity” and “mental torpor” with “lethal” and “intentionally devitalized” cultural content designed “not to arouse but to lessen concern about [harsh] social and economic realities” (like structurally generated mass unemployment) in a society divided between (i)”haves,” “winners,” and “order-givers” and (ii) “have-nots,” “losers,” and “order-receivers.” (Schiller 1973, pp. 1-31) You can learn from that media today about (supposedly) isolated examples of morally bad capitalist behavior – Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and the recently ugly AIG executive and trader bonuses, for example – but not about the deep assault that capitalism (once aptly described by Marx as the de facto “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”) routinely against a decent and democratic existence. Especially during periods of graphic capitalist failure and excess like the present, you can see and hear occasional pseudo-progressive hints of Charles Dickens-like moralizing against plutocratic overindulgence. Serious discussion of the profit system’s deadly impact on ordinary peoples’ security (and on democracy, social justice, international harmony, and ecological sustainability) is forbidden in the corporate masters’ communications and culture complex.
Sober structural critique of the existing system of class rule is unthinkable there for reasons that are not mysterious. The main media institutions are owned and operated by giant profit-based state-capitalist super-conglomerates like General Electric (owner and part owner of NBC, A&E, American Movie Classics, Biography Channel, Bravo, CNBC, Court TV, History Channel, MSG Network, MSNBC, National Geographic Worldwide and more), Time Warner (owner of film and music production companies, theme parks, sports teams, magazines, websites and book publishers as well as Turner Broadcasting), Walt Disney (ABC, Disney Channel/Network, Lifetime Network, ESPN, Classic Sports, E! and more), Viacom (CBS, Paramount, Blockbuster, theme parks, music publishing, book publishing, Nickelodeon, MTV, TNN, and more), the News Corporation (FOX Channel, Fox News, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, 20th Century Fox, London Times, TV Guide, the LA Dodgers, many stadiums, five New York sports teams, FOX Family Channel and more). Predictably enough, the news, entertainment, and self-help productions of these giant communications and culture empires reflexively and routinely isolate “individual” problems like poverty, joblessness, and military “post-traumatic stress” from their taproots in the historical and social-structural context of the profits system and that system’s imperial and military-industrial component. They harp instead on peoples’ supposed “personal responsibility” for their place in the world – a major theme on Dr. Phil, Biggest Loser, Deal or No Deal, Dr. Laura, and Judge Judy (the last is unsparing in her contempt for those who dare to be unemployed) and in such fine journalistic productions as “Self” Magazine (yet to be balanced on newsstands by a journal titled “Other”).
And they do so with no small impact. Modern corporate communications gives capitalist masters a capacity to shape mass perceptions (and even feelings) in ways that pre-television anti-capitalist sages like Marx, Engels, Bakunin, Rosa Luxembourg, and Antonio Gramsci, Trotsky (saved from the television era by a Stalinist ice-pick) could never have imagined in their wildest dreams (or nightmares). As Herbert Schiller noted, “a national communications pageant is orchestrated by the surrogates of the state-capitalist economy…The flow of information in a complex society is a source of unparalleled power” (Schiller 1973, pp.6-7).
Along with the intimately related absence of a serious anti-capitalist or even mildly social-democratic Left in the United States, the ubiquity of passivity-inducing, consent-manufacturing, victim-blaming, life-fragmenting, and inequality-justifying messages in the dominant media-politics culture makes it less than surprising that masses of freshly discarded Americans blame themselves for the fate that capital has imposed on them. As Sigmund Freud observed (in one of his rare useful formulations), psychological depression is anger turned inward. Dominant state-capitalist ideological, cultural, and ideological institutions function to turn blame away from those who deserve it – the top 1 percent that owns 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and larger shares of the nation’s politicians and media messages – and on to various deflective and inappropriate targets, including ourselves, who have been told again and again, in countless different ways, in a diversity of mediums, that our personal worth is a reflection of our exchange value – the measure of our utility to capital.
If you are looking for a reason (there are many) to work for the re-building and expansion of a Left in the U.S., please consider that anti-capitalism is among other things suicide prevention. In the meantime, let us remind increasingly frayed and torn fellow Americans that the Americans most worthy of suicidal feelings these days are at the top, not the bottom of society. As millions more lose their means of livelihood and the human community drifts yet closer to final material and social run under the yoke of capital, a final comment from Marx and Engels in 1848 seems as true as ever 161 years later: “The bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law…Society can no longer live under the bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.” Society itself, in fact, will commit suicide by not transcending the profits system and its parasitic masters  – a topic for a future commentary.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of many essays, reviews, speeches, and book, including Empire and Inequality: American and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987). Street will speak on “Change and Continuity: An Assessment of Obama’s Early Administration” on Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at 7pm, Paul Engle Center, 1600 4th Av SE Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
- With unduly disastrous consequences in a militantly “market”-oriented (actually state-capitalist) society like the U.S. – one that grants trillions of dollars worth of government assistance to the giant incorporated Wall Street institutions who precipitated the current crisis as it boasts the weakest social welfare state (unique among modern industrial “democracies” in its failure to guarantee health care to all of its citizens) in the industrialized world.
- For some dark and deeply informed reflections, please see Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destorying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007).