I’ve been seeing a meme doing the rounds that identifies a set of experiences as internalised capitalism: Feeling guilty for resting, self worth based on career, putting productivity before health, believing that hard work leads to happiness, feeling lazy when you can’t work and using busyness to avoid your needs. It struck me that this can be as much about poverty as it is about capitalism.
If you are comfortably off, then you might be able to avoid these feelings. But, in reality most people are a paycheck or two away from total disaster. One big, unexpected bill can throw most people into difficulty. If anyone depends on you, then that’s a lot of pressure to be under. So you work when you’re ill, because you have to try and stay ahead to keep you and your people safe. There is no job security anymore, no certainty, nothing much you can count on to help you if things go wrong, in too many parts of the world.
The more poor and insecure we are, the more tightly we are tied to all these things. The more reason we have to fear poverty, the more obliged we are to internalise the capitalism and sell ourselves to survive. Capitalism is not a system that creates wealth for all, it is a system that thrives on poverty, and fear of poverty. It would be nice to be able to avoid internalising that, but the more vulnerable you are, the fewer options you have.
Capitalism doesn’t work for most of us. Things that really need doing – growing food, caring for the sick and vulnerable, raising children, looking after the land – don’t actually pay very well. The best way to make money in this system is not by working, but by using the money to make money. The most successful capitalists at the moment seem to be the disaster capitalists who are able to play the markets and make money out of things going wrong for everyone else. Capitalism does not feed the hungry, or shelter the homeless, or safeguard the environment. At which point it seems fair to ask what use it is.
The work we do should be meaningful and useful. There is no shortage of that sort of work that needs doing. Identifying with our work, in a context where our work is making things better, would be fine. No one should have to fear the consequences of not being able to work. No one should have to work when they are ill. No one should spend their time mostly exhausted. Human systems should work for the vast majority of people involved in them, not a small minority.