For the majority of my life, I felt stuck and confused when it came to the topics of government and society. I imagine you feel or have felt something similar. Maybe you choose to not think about it as much as possible. Whatever the case; things can clearly be better than they are now right now. But neither of the parties that handily dominate the political sphere in the United States seem to want to do too much about it. Or maybe they do want to help but they’re blocked at every turn by The Other Guys. Or maybe they’re incredibly inept. Or maybe they’re evil! Those are the rationalizations I most often encountered, but none of them really seemed to satisfactorily explain the current state of things.
I don’t know everything, and I won’t pretend that I do. A lot of our political discourse comes from a perspective from someone who purports to have the answer to every question. Using their prowess and brilliance, they bestow The Truth to the peons. That's why I chose to enter this discourse: I want to model that it's ok to not know everything, but it's important to be intentional and thoughtful. And you don’t have to know everything to have a valid critique, either. But more on that later.
A bit of a backstory
I knew for a long time I was to the left of Democrats, but also I got tricked into thinking Obama was a liberal despite the obvious evidence at the time. I didn't really think much about socialism or communism, and happily regurgitated the lies we were all taught. I was so sure that if someone was smart enough, they could find the right solution to make the current system work well enough for everyone. I believed that history was made by brilliant individuals, and that thanks to progress, people were smarter and cleverer than ever before.
This is a lie we are taught, too. Collective action is literally always necessary for even these "brilliant individuals" to achieve much of anything. Even scientific discoveries from a lone scientist crouched over a desk in a lab are built upon prior work. I mean, think about it: did you make the device you’re reading this on? The clothes you’re wearing? It’s a romantic notion to think that one person can change the world but with any scrutiny, those fanciful stories reveal that we are all interconnected. It’s true that individuals can become symbols that inspire others into collective action; but again it is the collective action that gets it done.
They’re different, but the same
During the early pandemic, I finally understood that the Democratic Party is truly, ideologically aligned with the Republican Party. The difference is tone and pace.
By that, I mean that Republicans will cheer on a televised murder of a person from a vulnerable population. In contrast, Democrats will give speeches about the horrors of police brutality, while directly and intentionally increasing the odds that a person from a vulnerable population will have an interaction with that same murderer the Republicans are cheering for. Democrats don't have that same zeal. They prefer the consequences of their choices to be distant, vague, and abstract. Like how "no more kids in cages" became "don’t call them cages." Of course, they won’t be in cages if they’re simply turned away. It’s a lot harder to see the cruelty we’re showing to people trying to escape the very destabilizations we directly or partially caused when they’re not allowed close enough to be seen.
Case in point: bodily autonomy is yet again under threat
The Supreme Court is presently debating overturning Roe v Wade, and Democrats (who hold a majority in the legislative branch AND control the executive branch) are doing absolutely nothing about it and have done nothing about it for 40+ years. It’s not like the Right was quiet about their intentions all this time.
"But separation of branches of government! Checks and balances! The executive and legislative shouldn't interfere with the judiciary! The filibuster (that Democrats can get rid of any time they want, even without Joe Manchin's approval)! Bullshit, all of it.
We are allowed to demand the people in power act on our behalf and for our benefit. Plus, their reasons for inaction aren't even real rules or boundaries, because when people break those rules there are no meaningful consequences. No rule-breaker is deprived of their ill-gotten gains, even when it's very stupid and obvious. Citing rules is nothing more than an excuse for inaction from the people specifically empowered to act. Get creative, solve the problem.
What is my path forward?
I started reading and listening to other people that have different experiences from me, and I learned a lot. I learned how our economic system effectively controls our society, and that our economic system has a fundamental flaw at its core that will make all of those progressive ideals of mine impossible to attain because achieving them inevitably means reducing profits in a system predicated on maximizing profits. And I started to really appreciate how little progress we've made. Sure, in some areas, things are better now than before. Lots of things now are worse than before, too. Progress, maybe. But for whom and at what cost?
Turning the corner
I was trapped in what Mark Fisher calls "capitalist realism." All around me, from all sides and at all times, the only thing I was exposed to was capitalism. Capitalism was the only choice. It was all I knew.
There’s a snippet from a Kwame Ture speech that got seared in my mind, which I'll paraphrase here: if communism and socialism are so dangerous and deadly, why do Americans only know lies about it? If I lived in a place full of snakes, it would be important for me to learn about snakes: what the deadly ones look like, what they eat, where they hide, how they hunt, and so on. The snake is a threat, so I must understand it. We are told that communism is a threat, but it's painfully obvious that Americans do not understand it in the least. It sounds more like the "threat" of communism is working class people learning about it and demanding the powerful capitalists that run our society to step aside. If it's as bad an idea as capitalists claim it is, why not just genuinely educate us about it? If the truth is so horrible, tell it to us!
Why is everything so confusing and weird?
Living in capitalist realism is confusing, because nothing makes sense. When you think about it, the stories we're told about how the world works, who runs it, what forces move it, and so on; they don't really add up. Everything is messy and incoherent.
Why are public schools underfunded? The societal benefit is obvious, and an informed electorate is the best possible situation for democracy. We know that increased funding to education pays back economic dividends to the community! Why don't police react to murders the same way they react to petty vandalism? The loss of a life is far more concerning than some broken windows. Why don't grocery stores simply donate the food that's about to go bad? They can't sell it in time, and it could easily help feed a lot of hungry people. Why, indeed! All of these blatantly obvious, well-researched, and easily funded changes could be enacted and enjoy broad public support regardless of political affiliation. Why don’t politicians score an easy win?
When I changed my perspective and allowed myself to question The Thing You Should Never Question, I realized and learned things are still deeply complex; there's a way to make sense of it by understanding the basic motivations and motivators for action.
The nature of humans
Uh oh, this is tortured territory. I'm not going to hit you with some kind of armchair-pseudo-psycho-evolutionary-anthropological nonsense and declare that human nature can be assessed in terms of social values (good, bad, greedy, etc). I've got what I believe to be a Very Reasonable Take about human nature that's well researched. Are you ready?
People are generally capable of setting goals (broadly understood) and working towards them. The rate and degree of our successes vary wildly, but it doesn't change that motivation is the antecedent to action. People want and need to do things like eat, sleep, play, fuck, create, pray, and all sorts of stuff that is fun and feels good. And we'll put in effort to attain those things.
So, yes, my observation about humanity is that people have motivations to do things and then we work towards that thing. Why is such a bland observation important?
In our society, all of the things that people want or need either cost money or are facilitated by money. Yeah, even prayer. You don’t need anything to pray but you do need to be alive–and that’s certainly not free. It also impacts abstract things like "I want to have a vibrant, loving family." A stable and safe living environment costs money and is a major component in a vibrant, loving family. Every hobby, every food, every book… money! And if not money for the book, it’s bus fare to get to the library to check out the book for free.
Most people in our society must dedicate a large portion of their lives to attain money to do the things they want to do during the fleeting moments of our brief and precious existence. Some are unable to attain money because we refuse to provide them even basic accommodations; and they are forced into a life of misery for no good reason. Others got lucky to be born into generational wealth. Maybe most of us are somewhere in between those two. However you get it, more money means more access to these fun, good things that people need and like.
If every person wants money, what happens when you put lots of people together that all want money?
It's also a basic observation to say that accumulation of money, in a system like ours, is generally desirable for every person. It's not like people go into their boss's office and say "cut my wages!" People do unpleasant work to get money for the things they want and need. And when we see people pursuing their goals through the accumulation of money across all levels of society, we start to see the picture come into focus.
When a company spends more money, the people that reap the profits of that company get less money. That's why the people that run companies like to keep costs and spending low and to sell high: willingly decreasing their income would feel like intentionally taking actions that are harmful to the attainment and/or security of their goals. There's plenty to explore about the values held by the rich, but we can see that it kind of doesn't matter what their values are to observe that their motivations are clear and ultimately mundane.
This attitude naturally leads to underpaying workers, polluting waterways, low quality products, and so on. Companies motivated by profit will always try to get away with absolutely everything they think they can to maximize profit. It's their sole purpose. And sometimes it's cheaper to change people's minds through PR and regulatory capture than to comply with necessary pollution reduction.
There's no secret society or fantastical stories involved. It's just people doing obvious things so they can attain more of the most useful and important resource in our society. It's not because people are "innately greedy" or whatever, it's because human beings are reasonably capable problem solvers, and people in our society need money to get the things they want and need.
Calling people embedded in a capitalist society “greedy” is like admonishing a fish for taking a long bath. Just what, exactly, should they be doing instead? Most people can and do make choices that are counter to making money, but it also means that any moment not focused on making money is time lost that could be used to make money. And what’s worse is we’ve created a system that rewards people that are pathologically obsessed with accumulating wealth. And then we let them write the rules.
This is our boring dystopia. No intrigue, no thrillers. It's just everyday people pursuing mundane goals, trying to have a good time.
What do we do instead?
That's the most important question, isn't it? We know that the way things are will unalive a lot (or maybe all!) of the human species in relative short order. And this is the part that I am presently stuck on. I think it was Patrick Stewart that famously asked, "what is to be done?" We need to figure out how to start with our present conditions and culture and end with a different economic system, one that directly rewards mutual benefit instead of profit and greed. When we organize our society to reward mutual benefit, we become more empowered and incentivized to help each other.
Here's what we do know: just as the economist Adam Smith passionately argued, labor is the true fundamental resource, not commodities or money. Without labor nothing gets made, sold, or bought. Ore is just a rock in the ground. Culturally, we seem to have forgotten that. Wait, no, we've been fed inane amounts of propaganda to tell us otherwise. We aren’t stupid, we’re lost.
We know that under capitalism, labor is compulsory. Actually, that’s technically not true: you are free to choose between selling your labor or going hungry and unhoused.
We know that laboring for other people means we give away a large portion of the value we create with our labor in the form of profit. The people at the top of the organization get paid by keeping some or most of the value you’ve generated from your labor. Of course, even administrators and CEOs do some actual work… sometimes. And they deserve to be compensated for their labor, just like anyone else. But there’s a huge gulf between “being compensated for the labor you do” and CEO pay under capitalism.
We know this means the people that benefit the most from the system are reaping the profits of other people's labor. Like Jeff himself said, his Amazon employees paid for him approach the edge of the atmosphere as he low-key builds the baseline tech prowess to seek defense contracts.
We know that successful revolutions in opposition of capitalism meaningfully improve the lives of people. Cubans defeated a dictator, slavers, and profiteers. As a tiny island nation, it is able to provide for the well-being of its citizens despite massive sanctions and blockades imposed by the US and Europe for... uh... some reason or another. The USSR and PRC fundamentally transformed their mostly feudal-agrarian societies to industrialized ones that provided for the wellbeing of their citizenry far, far better than anything that came before it.
We see that non-capitalist societies can survive and even thrive in providing for the well-being of their people, even in the face of active antagonization of the most powerful military ever known to the planet and blockades.
We know that the US is the primary antagonizer of these non-capitalist societies, too. We have a distinct advantage over every other revolution: we won't have to fight off US-backed coups or blockades.
Can we use their playbook?
The thing is that we can't hope to copy the ideas of Chavez, Mao, Castro, Lenin, or any other revolutionary movements because we are not in the same context that they made the decisions they made. Nor would we want to, since they're all humans with their own flaws and shortcomings. There's plenty to criticize. But we can learn a lot from them!
Our culture and material conditions are fundamentally different in some incredible ways from the revolutions that came before us, but the general forces at play are very similar. The vast majority of the population lives in relative squalor in comparison to the people at the top. The people at the top are hoarding so much more than they could even use while there are plenty of people that go without basic necessities, let alone access to a decent life. To make matters worse; unlike any of the historical revolutions, we have sufficient technology and infrastructure to produce far more than we need.
The same goes for capitalism, by the way: we can't hope to model Denmark's capitalism or whatever because we are not Denmark. We have different cultural values and practices.
Where are we now?
We need to figure out how to dismantle capitalism here and now, and we need to figure out what a non-capitalist America could look like. I know it's generally presumed that a revolution must be armed, but an armed revolution is hard for me to imagine succeeding in a context where the military can and does murder American citizens using drones. And we've seen that the police are more than happy to treat US citizens as an enemy.
Even the gun nuts are utterly useless because tanks and armored infantry. It's all a big joke to gun makers and tacti-cool gear manufacturers as gun weirdos playact their airport fiction fantasies of fighting off some tyrannical government with a handgun.
And... that's about it. That's where I'm at. Revolution must happen because we can't expect capitalism to suddenly dissolve, but I have no idea what revolution would look like. I'm still learning, and there's a lot to learn.
You don't need to have all the answers to have a valid position
Sometimes we function as if you aren't allowed to say "hey, this sucks" unless you're ready to follow it up with a perfect solution. However, this is a very silly notion. The ability to comprehend and identify issues and providing thoughtful analyses of them are separate skills from finding solutions.
Have you ever been around a group of friends, and one person says "ugh, I feel like Jeremy takes advantage of me when I offer him help." And then others gremark "oh, I totally feel that way too!" Sharing a thoughtful observation can spark realization and understanding, and even lead to identifying a challenge faced by the group. Knowing, as they say, is half the battle.
Speak up. Start talking about this stuff. And for as much as you speak, listen at least twice as much. Our lives quite literally depend on it.
Josh Davis is a recovering academic in Indiana. They are presently finishing their PhD in Media Science, and work as an educator for people with learning differences. Josh also runs their blog, internetginger.com, which covers topics ranging from Marxism to music research, with a healthy side of Daoism.