We are reaping what we have sown

See update for November 28, 2020 at end of post.

A lot of people actually like capitalism, mainly because they think it can make them rich, and they see ‘freedom’—when you see this word, always, always, always, ask “for whom, to do what, to whom?”—in the power that relative wealth offers them over others. Accordingly, they believe “they should be ‘free’ to exploit workers and the environment for personal gain, externalizing the associated costs, and thus burdening society at large with the costs they incur but should not have to pay for.”[1]

We live in a society where to be poor is to be denied the necessities of life, like adequate housing,[2] food, and health care, and therefore to be “needy” and stigmatized, while the rich are seen as “self-sufficient” even as they fiercely oppose improvements in the conditions of the workers they exploit, denying the poor even a modicum of financial security.[3]

If you are rich, you have the ‘freedom’ to say no, to decline a deal that does not advance your interests. If you are poor, you must take the deal you can get. If you are rich, you can insist on a deal that makes you richer. If you are poor, you must take a deal even when it makes you poorer, just to avoid further destitution. Thus capitalism functions intrinsically to widen social inequality.[4]

More insidiously, in the operation of a hierarchically invidious monism,[5] if you are rich, you are ‘good.’ If you are poor, you are at least suspect if not ‘evil.’[6] If you are rich, you are socially acceptable. If you are poor, you may know only shame.

If you are poor, especially if you are unemployed, you are systemically denied socially acceptable means of advancement toward socially acceptable ends.[7] You might therefore resort to socially unapproved—deviant—means, which we call “crime,”[8] which in turn rationalize police,[9] who, in their utter failure to solve the problem, because the problem they seek to solve is not the actual problem,[10] then necessitate that we get “tough[er] on crime,” in the name of “law and order,”[11] which is to say we do the same thing over and over again as if we expect different results.[12]

In adapting that cliché,[13] I said “as if.” This is because we deny the possibility of redemption and instead attach what George Lakoff calls “moral essence” to those we label “criminals,” and therefore prefer retribution.[14] This is part of a larger program to stigmatize the poor, to make of them an example of what happens to people who do not conform,[15] and thus to divert attention from the crimes of the rich,[16] but most fundamentally, to divert attention from the inescapable conclusion that we nonetheless blind ourselves to, because to face that conclusion is to take the risk of not conforming, that capitalism itself is criminal.

While insisting that capitalism is good, we refuse mercy to its victims:

A core element of the American credo is that talent, skill, hard work, and achievement largely determine life chances. We believe that everyone has a fair shot at whatever is valued or prized and that no individual or group is unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged.[17]

This credo simply isn’t true and worse, it rationalizes a cold-hearted, indeed Calvinist, view of wealth and poverty: “You get what you deserve.”[18] We should have taken a different lesson from deindustrialization:

Corporate America left Western Pennsylvania a toxic mess, both literally and figuratively, and stripped away our livelihoods and identities. Of course we’re bitter.

When that crash [the collapse of the steel industry] hit, those who could moved away. Those who couldn’t tended to be mid-career Baby Boomers with mortgaged houses that suddenly couldn’t be sold at any price. Those folks are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and many of them still very, very aggrieved. 

Some of them found solace in their churches or by becoming super-nostalgic for the “lost America” that Ronald Reagan told us had been destroyed by “unions” and “minorities” and “welfare queens.”[19]

Racism, of course, has roots that go far beyond the ruins of the rust belt. Indeed, contrary to the delusions of the “free” market, capitalism is inextricable from slavery.[20] But Ronald Reagan exploited our bigotries and reinforced them as he cemented neoconservatism and neoliberalism as governing ideologies. More profoundly, he doubled down on an actual crime, capitalism, as we embraced the mantra that “greed is good.”[21]

So now, we are shocked because a delusional raging narcissist,[22] a probable con man whose dubious wealth is likely nowhere nearly so substantial as he pretends,[23] refuses to concede defeat in his bid for re-election, and instead desperately seeks to overturn the result,[24] perhaps because he fears losing presidential immunity.[25] We embraced criminality. So now we have a criminal in the White House. And we wonder how that could happen.

Update, November 28, 2020: I return to the topic of capitalism as criminal, indeed as criminally insane, in a blog post entitled, “Failing to answer the question: Why you should care about other people.”

  1. [1]David Benfell, “On ‘freedom,’” Not Housebroken, September 13, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/13/on-freedom/
  2. [2]Kate Gibson, “Minimum wage doesn’t cover the rent anywhere in the U.S.,” CBS News, June 14, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/minimum-wage-doesnt-cover-the-rent-anywhere-in-the-u-s/
  3. [3]Daniel D’Addario, “Amazon is worse than Walmart,” Salon, July 30, 2013, https://www.salon.com/control/2013/07/30/how_amazon_is_worse_than_wal_mart/; Timothy Egan, “The Corporate Daddy,” New York Times, June 19, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/20/opinion/timothy-egan-walmart-starbucks-and-the-fight-against-inequality.html; Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed (New York: Owl, 2001); Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart faces warehouse horror allegations and federal Labor Board complaint,” Salon, November 19, 2013, https://www.salon.com/test/2013/11/18/breaking_wal_mart_faces_warehouse_horror_allegations_and_federal_labor_board_complaint/; Josh Eidelson, “Tens of thousands protest, over 100 arrested in Black Friday challenge to Wal-Mart,” Salon, November 30, 2013, https://www.salon.com/test/2013/11/30/tens_of_thousands_protest_over_100_arrested_in_black_friday_challenge_to_wal_mart/; Josh Eidelson, “Finally paying for Wal-Mart’s sins: Wage theft settlement yields millions,” Salon, December 16, 2013, https://www.salon.com/test/2013/12/16/finally_paying_for_wal_marts_sins_wage_theft_settlement_yields_millions/; Josh Eidelson, “Freezing for Wal-Mart: Sub-zero warehouse temperatures spur Indiana work stoppage,” Salon, January 14, 2014, https://www.salon.com/test/2014/01/13/freezing_for_wal_mart_sub_zero_warehouse_temperatures_spur_indiana_work_stoppage/; Josh Eidelson, “Amazon Keeps Unions Out By Keeping Workers in Fear, Says Organizer,” Alternet, January 22, 2014, https://www.alternet.org/2014/01/amazon-keeps-unions-out-keeping-workers-fear-says-organizer/; Nichole Gracely, “‘Being homeless is better than working for Amazon,’” Guardian, November 28, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/money/2014/nov/28/being-homeless-is-better-than-working-for-amazon; Steven Greenhouse, “The Changing Face of Temporary Employment,” New York Times, August 31, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/01/upshot/the-changing-face-of-temporary-employment.html; Erin Hatton, “The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy,” New York Times, January 26, 2013, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/26/the-rise-of-the-permanent-temp-economy/; Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” Salon, February 23, 2014, https://www.salon.com/control/2014/02/23/worse_than_wal_mart_amazons_sick_brutality_and_secret_history_of_ruthlessly_intimidating_workers/; Paul Jaskunas, “The Tyranny of the Forced Smile,” New York Times, February 14, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/jobs/the-tyranny-of-the-forced-smile.html; Allison Kilkenny, “Ohio Walmart Holds Food Drive For Its Own Employees,” Nation, November 18, 2013, https://www.thenation.com/article/ohio-walmart-holds-food-drive-its-own-employees/; Molly Kinder, “Trump’s State of the Union declared we’re in a ‘blue-collar boom.’ Workers don’t agree,” Brookings, February 6, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/02/05/trumps-state-of-the-union-declared-were-in-a-blue-collar-boom-workers-dont-agree/; Paul Krugman, “The Plight of the Employed,” New York Times, December 24, 2013, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/24/the-plight-of-the-employed/; Paul Krugman, “The Fear Economy,” New York Times, December 26, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/27/opinion/krugman-the-fear-economy.html; Danielle Kurtzleben, “Read McDonald’s workers’ shocking harassment and discrimination complaints — and why they’re so important,” Vox, January 22, 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/1/22/7873661/mcdonalds-lawsuit-harassment-discrimination; Edward McClelland, “You call this a middle class? “I’m trying not to lose my house,’” Salon, March 1, 2014, https://www.salon.com/test/2014/03/01/you_call_this_a_middle_class_i%E2%80%99m_trying_not_to_lose_my_house/; Mac McClelland, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” Mother Jones, March/April 2012, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor/; Nathaniel Mott, “From Amazon warehouse workers to Google bus drivers, it’s tough working a non-tech job at a tech company,” Pando, October 9, 2014, https://pando.com/2014/10/09/from-amazon-warehouse-workers-to-google-bus-drivers-its-tough-working-a-non-tech-job-at-a-tech-company/; Marc Pilisuk with Jennifer Achord Rountree, Who Benefits From Global Violence and War (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008).; Ari Rabin-Havt, “Wal-Mart flunks its fact-check: The truth behind its sarcastic response to the Times,” Salon, June 25, 2014, https://www.salon.com/control/2014/06/25/walmart_flunks_its_fact_check_the_truth_behind_its_sarcastic_response_to_the_times/; Michael Sainato, “‘I’m not a robot’: Amazon workers condemn unsafe, grueling conditions at warehouse,” Guardian, February 5, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/feb/05/amazon-workers-protest-unsafe-grueling-conditions-warehouse; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013, https://www.salon.com/test/2013/07/30/amazon_is_everything_wrong_with_our_new_economy/; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-harsh-work-20130407-story.html; Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, https://www.latimes.com/business/la-xpm-2013-apr-07-la-fi-mo-harsh-work-history-20130405-story.html; Alana Semuels, “Tougher workplace makes home life worse too,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, https://www.latimes.com/business/la-xpm-2013-apr-07-la-fi-mo-harsh-work-history-20130405-story.html; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Lehigh Valley Morning Call, September 18, 2011, https://www.mcall.com/business/mc-xpm-2011-09-18-mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917-story.html; Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006); Lindsay Wise, “Report: Temp jobs at all-time high in U.S.,” McClatchy, September 2, 2014, https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/economy/article24772543.html
  4. [4]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129; see also David Benfell, “The fallacy of ‘free’ trade is more than a fallacy of ‘free’ trade,” Not Housebroken, June 28, 2018, https://disunitedstates.org/2018/06/28/the-fallacy-of-free-trade-is-more-than-a-fallacy-of-free-trade/; David Benfell, “They must pay,” Not Housebroken, February 21, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/02/21/they-must-pay/; David Benfell, “These disunited states,” Not Housebroken, January 9, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/01/09/these-disunited-states/; Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University, 2013).
  5. [5]Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, Temple University, 2005).
  6. [6]Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991); George Lakoff, Moral Politics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
  7. [7]I refer to Robert K. Merton, “Social Structure and Anomie,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017), 181-190. However, barriers to social mobility remain formidable: Claude S. Fischer et al., “Why Inequality?” In Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 9-15; Jay MacLeod, “Social Immobility in the Land of Opportunity, in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 22-26.
  8. [8]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  9. [9]David Benfell, “On police,” Not Housebroken, August 12, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/10/on-police/
  10. [10]Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton, “Justice as Healing: Going Outside the Colonizers’ Cage,” in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, eds. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 511-529.
  11. [11]David Benfell, “On the pretense of ‘law and order,’” Not Housebroken, September 11, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/11/on-the-pretense-of-law-and-order/
  12. [12]I modify a cliché whose origin appears to lie with a twelve-step community: Quote Investigator, “Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results,” July 31, 2019, https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/03/23/same/#:~:text=The%20definition%20of%20insanity%20is,the%20acclaimed%20genius%20Albert%20Einstein.
  13. [13]Quote Investigator, “Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results,” July 31, 2019, https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/03/23/same/#:~:text=The%20definition%20of%20insanity%20is,the%20acclaimed%20genius%20Albert%20Einstein.
  14. [14]George Lakoff, Moral Politics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
  15. [15]Herbert J. Gans, The War Against the Poor (New York: Basic, 1995).
  16. [16]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  17. [17]Thomas M. Shapiro, “Introduction,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 3.
  18. [18]This derives from a Protestant idea that God rewards those who have faith and work hard: Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Harmony, 1991).
  19. [19]Jason Togyer, “Fear and Loathing in the Time of Coronavirus,” Columbia Journalism Review, March 25, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/special_report/mckeesport-year-of-fear-covid-19-pandemic.php
  20. [20]Sven Beckert, “Slavery and Capitalism,” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 12, 2014, https://www.chronicle.com/article/SlaveryCapitalism/150787/
  21. [21]This is actually a slight misquotation from a speech given in a movie released in 1987 (during Ronald Reagan’s second term) but only in the specific wording, not the intent. See American Rhetoric, “Gordon Gekko: Address to Teldar Paper Stockholders,” n.d., https://www.americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechwallstreet.html
  22. [22]Donald Trump matches the description in George Simon, “Understanding and Dealing with Narcissistic Rage,” Counselling Resource, July 24, 2017, https://counsellingresource.com/features/2017/07/24/understanding-narcissistic-rage/
  23. [23]Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig, and Mike McIntire, “Trump’s Taxes Show Chronic Losses and Years of Income Tax Avoidance,” New York Times, September 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/27/us/donald-trump-taxes.html; David A. Fahrenthold, Rachael Bade, and John Wagner, “Trump sues in bid to block congressional subpoena of financial records,” Washington Post, April 22, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-sues-in-bid-to-block-congressional-subpoena-of-financial-records/2019/04/22/a98de3d0-6500-11e9-82ba-fcfeff232e8f_story.html; Brian Faler, “Treasury misses congressional deadline for turning over Trump’s tax returns,” Politico, April 10, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/10/trump-tax-returns-congress-1342027; Bess Levin, “G.O.P. Voters Think Losing $1 Billion Makes Someone (Trump) a Good Businessman,” Vanity Fair, May 15, 2019, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/05/republicans-still-think-trump-was-a-successful-businessman; Walter Shapiro, “The Worst Businessman in America,” New Republic, May 8, 2019, https://newrepublic.com/article/153855/trump-tax-returns-worst-businessman-america; Craig Unger, “Trump’s Russian Laundromat,” New Republic, July 13, 2017, https://newrepublic.com/article/143586/trumps-russian-laundromat-trump-tower-luxury-high-rises-dirty-money-international-crime-syndicate; Craig Unger, “Trump’s businesses are full of dirty Russian money. The scandal is that it’s legal,” Washington Post, March 29, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/trumps-businesses-are-full-of-dirty-russian-money-the-scandal-is-thats-legal/2019/03/29/11b812da-5171-11e9-88a1-ed346f0ec94f_story.html
  24. [24]Aaron Blake, “Trump lawyers suffer embarrassing rebukes from judges over voter fraud claims,” Washington Post, November 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/11/11/trump-lawyers-suffer-embarrassing-rebukes-judges-over-voter-fraud-claims/; Mark Bray, “Trump’s Baseless Fraud Accusations Are Already Sparking Far Right Violence,” Truthout, November 9, 2020, https://truthout.org/articles/trumps-baseless-fraud-accusations-are-already-sparking-far-right-violence/; Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein, “Trump team eyes legal, political Hail Marys as options for comeback fade,” Politico, November 6, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/06/trump-legal-political-lawsuit-election-434786; Marjorie Cohn, “Trump’s Frivolous Lawsuits Are the Tip of the Iceberg in His Refusal to Concede,” Truthout, November 11, 2020, https://truthout.org/articles/trumps-frivolous-lawsuits-are-the-tip-of-the-iceberg-in-his-refusal-to-concede/; Pam Fessler, “Led By Giuliani, Trump Campaign Effort To Stop Certification Falters In Pennsylvania,” National Public Radio, November 17, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/11/17/936027693/led-by-giuliani-trump-campaign-effort-to-stop-certification-falters-in-pennsylva; Josh Gerstein, “Trump campaign revises Pennsylvania suit, again,” Politico, November 18, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/18/trump-pennsylvania-election-lawsuit-437996; Robin Givhan, “Rudy Giuliani is a mess,” Washington Post, November 18, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/11/18/rudy-giuliani-is-mess/; David Nakamura, “Trump’s bid to discredit election raises fear that he will undermine a smooth transfer of power,” Washington Post, November 8, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-concession-transition-power/2020/11/07/2b4cf640-20e4-11eb-b532-05c751cd5dc2_story.html; Philip Rucker, Amy Gardner, and Josh Dawsey, “Trump uses power of presidency to try to overturn the election and stay in office,” Washington Post, November 19, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-uses-power-of-presidency-to-try-to-overturn-the-election-and-stay-in-office/2020/11/19/bc89caa6-2a9f-11eb-8fa2-06e7cbb145c0_story.html; Stephanie Saul, “Lindsey Graham’s Long-Shot Mission to Unravel the Election Results,” New York Times, November 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/17/us/politics/lindsey-graham-georgia-trump-biden.html; Paula Reed Ward, “Federal judge to consider whether to dismiss case filed by Trump campaign in Pa.,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 17, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/federal-judge-to-consider-whether-to-dismiss-case-filed-by-trump-campaign-in-pa/
  25. [25]Dan Alexander, “Trump Will Have $900 Million Of Loans Coming Due In His Second Term If He’s Reelected,” Forbes, October 19, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/danalexander/2020/10/19/trump-will-have-900-million-of-loans-coming-due-in-his-second-term-if-hes-reelected/; Jane Mayer, “Why Trump Can’t Afford to Lose,” New Yorker, November 1, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/11/09/why-trump-cant-afford-to-lose