[Capitalism] encourages and requires fierce individualism, self-interested disregard for the other, and resentment of arrangements into which one deposits more than he or she withdraws. As a business-savvy friend once remarked: Nobody gets rich off of bilateral transactions where everybody knows what they’re doing. Capitalism is an ideology that is far more encompassing than it admits, and one that turns every relationship into a calculable exchange. Bodies, time, energy, creativity, love — all become commodities to be priced and sold.
That’s Elizabeth Bruenig, writing in a newspaper owned by the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos.
Really? “Nobody gets rich off of bilateral transactions where everybody knows what they’re doing?” What exactly is Amazon, then? Is it somehow exploitative when you send money to Amazon and they send you things you want? Who’s being exploited?
Is the corner store more or less exploitative?
Does the philosophy that any bilateral transaction in a capitalist system represents disregard and resentment apply to Bruenig’s gig as an opinion columnist at the Washington Post? She’s not writing, and sharing her time, energy, and creativity on a volunteer basis. The Post gives her a paycheck, benefits (I presume), and a platform to reach a much wider audience than she would have her own. She gives them a column of interest and value. (Go ahead, laugh, get it out of your system. Look, not every decision in a capitalist system is going to work out!)
What’s fascinating is that Bruenig’s contention, that the free exchange of goods and services for money is somehow inherently unfair, exploitative, and morally wrong, is . . . not all that different from Donald Trump’s argument against the current free-trade status quo. We don’t operate on the barter system; we (or more specifically, America’s companies) purchase things from suppliers overseas. They send us iPads, cell phones, and cars, and we send them money. But then all of those companies buy things from us: aircraft, beef, corn, soybeans, trucks, tractors, coal.
In the case of China, Japan, Germany, Mexico, and Ireland (!), we buy more stuff from them than they buy from us. What you hear less about is that Hong Kong, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, Belgium, and Australia buy more from us than we buy from them. Overall, we’re running a trade deficit. We could worry about this in certain circumstances, i.e., our fighter jets need a certain component that is only produced in a foreign country. But those circumstances are pretty rare.
There are fair arguments against some trade practices. American workers can compete with anyone in the world . . . provided that those workers are not in slave-labor camps, as in China. We’ve banned the import of “merchandise mined, produced or manufactured, wholly or in part, in any foreign country by forced or indentured child labor — including forced child labor.” It’s fair to ask if we’re doing enough to keep goods produced by indisputably exploited labor from the shelves of American stores.
Similarly, if a country’s environmental, workplace-safety, or other laws differ from ours dramatically, we may conclude that purchasing their products represents an endorsement of exploitation.
If a foreign company is subsidized by the government so much that it can afford to sell a product at less than it cost to make that product, then we don’t really have free trade; American workers and companies are competing against both the foreign producer AND the foreign government.
But Trump rarely if ever makes his arguments on those terms. In Trump’s mind, if the United States is buying more of another country’s products than they’re buying of ours, we’re inherently “losing.”
But we have to make the deals fair. You know, with Mexico, as an example, we probably lose $130 billion a year. Now, for years, I’ve been saying — for the last year and a half, I’ve been saying $71 billion, but it’s really not. And they have a VAT tax of 16 percent, and we don’t have a tax. And, at some point, we have to get stronger and smarter, because we cannot continue to lose that kind of money with one country.
(In 2016, Mexico bought $230 billion in U.S. goods, and Americans bought $294 billion in Mexican goods.)
When Breunig calls for “a kind of socialism that would be democratic and aimed primarily at decommodifying labor, reducing the vast inequality brought about by capitalism, and breaking capital’s stranglehold over politics and culture,” she probably imagines something like Norway without all the oil drilling. As many observers have noticed, nations and cultures aren’t all the same, and you can’t expect the United States to just adopt a Norwegian economic and political model and expect everything to run smoothly. (In another essay, I pointed out that the Scandanavian societies that progressives keep staring at in envy have a slew of problems that aren’t as bad here in the United States — high cost of living, xenophobia and an unwelcoming attitude towards foreigners [immigrants, not tourists], and violence against women.)
Donald Trump and Elizabeth Bruenig don’t agree on much, but they do agree that you currently have too much freedom to buy what you want, when you want, how you want, from wherever you want.
What’s Really Wrong with Us
But just because Bruenig is wrong in her suggested solution doesn’t necessarily mean she’s off-base in her assessment of the problem. She writes, “Americans appear to be isolated, viciously competitive, suspicious of one another and spiritually shallow; and that we are anxiously looking for some kind of attachment to something real and profound in an age of decreasing trust and regard.”
Some might argue these are just updated versions of familiar complaints: the “Me Decade” of the Seventies, the alleged greed of the Eighties, the domestic paranoia and facile techno-utopianism of the Nineties. But most of us who love our country, and look around at it, would acknowledge that not everything is as good as we would like, and in fact we’re facing some serious problems. A Venn diagram of the Right’s diagnosis of America’s problems and the Left might have a decent amount of overlap.
You can chase your dream, but a lot of people keep picking the same dreams. A couple years ago, Saturday Night Live did a sketch imagining if the Nobel Prize Awards were covered like the Oscars. It was reasonably funny, but also revealing. We can name lots of movie stars, but few inventors or medical researchers. We have long lists of favorite bands, but no lists of favorite diplomats or peacemakers. Across bars, water coolers, and talk radio, Americans debate professional athletics at length, but no one has a fantasy team of philanthropists and innovators.
It is unsurprising that people would aspire to a role that is celebrated and applauded and glamorized. When a society celebrates the stars of movies and television shows, pop music, and professional athletics more than any other role, it’s not surprising that you’ll see overwhelming interest in achieving that role. My suspicion is that a lot of children and teens dream of a role where they’ll regularly hear thunderous applause and enjoy overwhelming wealth . . . and then feel a little disappointed when adult life gives them a career in a cubicle, or behind a store counter, or on a construction site. We talk a good game about “the inherent dignity of work” but we don’t really practice it. And it’s not merely wages. We don’t really offer much salute or even respect for the quiet difficult task of getting up every morning, going to work, being courteous to everyone around you, taking care of your family, paying the bills, and just keeping going, even when it feels like drudgery.
I’d argue that all too often, our society celebrates those it should denounce and denounces those it should celebrate.
Indeed, we do live in an era of “decreasing trust and regard.” Some would argue that reflects the growth of a “progressive aristocracy” at the top of the country. When the children of the powerful slide into great opportunities with ease, when having the right political views buys you indulgences with the moral code of our time, when you’re literally forgiven for voting a certain way if you’re a member of the preferred party, people trust their leaders less and hold them in lower regard.
The Joy of ‘Fierce Individualism,’ and/or Limited Empathy
You know what’s nice about the “fierce individualism” that Breunig laments? It’s a relief not to have to care about some people.
That may sound callous to some ears, but honest-to-goodness, all of us have a give-a-hoot credit card, and some people in our lives max out that credit line really fast.
You probably know at least one person like this in your own life. They’ve got a problem, and they’re in deep denial about it. They need to get into a twelve-step program. They need to either quit the job and look for a new one, or stop complaining. They gripe about their marriage and/or other important relationships but refuse to do something about it. They fume about slights, insults, indignities, and setbacks that are fairly routine in modern life. They’re looking for sympathy and reassurance that none of this is their fault. You probably offered it to them in the beginning, and they liked it, and now they keep coming back, hoping you’ll offer more. They really like reveling in their victimhood, and/or being saluted for their martyrdom — they do so much for everyone, and others take advantage of them so frequently. You gently remind them that there were warning signs, but they aren’t interested in discussing that much, and they certainly don’t want to change their approach to these problems in the future.
Jordan Peterson writes, “Set your house in order before you criticize the world.” Fix what’s fixable on the personal scale before you set about a grand redesign of human society. Of course, this is frightening and scary. It requires taking a hard look at our own lives and our past decisions. It means admitting we’re not as smart and wise as we thought we were. It means committing to changing ourselves, and probably encountering friction in our lives as we stop being the victim.
I think this demographic of dysfunctional-and-desperately-avoiding-taking-responsibility is actually overrepresented in the world of politics.
I think a lot of people set out to recognize the world because they’re avoiding reorganizing their own life. Or they’ve experienced some setback, disappointment, or heartbreak, and they desperately need a scapegoat. It’s too embarrassing or frightening for a young woman to acknowledge she chose to go out with a jerk, so she concludes that he reflects the “toxic masculinity” inherent to all men. The guy who got turned down for a date doesn’t want to believe that he came across as a creep, so he concludes she’s been “brainwashed by feminism.”
The fired employee doesn’t want to admit he’s lazy, so he decides that his old workplace reflected the inherent injustice of capitalism.
Your failure to achieve your dreams may reflect an inherent injustice in society. But it probably doesn’t.
ADDENDA: Over at Newsbusters, Clay Water lays out how the national media insisted primary day represented some great omen for Texas Democrats . . . despite the fact that their “biggest primary turnout in 16 years” was about two-thirds the Republican primary turnout.