The Invisible, Somewhat Idolatrous Hand: How We Worship Capitalism and Why It's So Harmful
There’s a divine presence among us that is revered in nearly every political debate and news briefing out there. It’s so omniscient that we need not even say it by its name anymore, but can refer to it in thousands of flowery euphemisms: the invisible hand, the market, free enterprise- hell, it's often used as a euphemism for freedom in general. It is all-knowing, all powerful. It has existed since the beginning of time and will be here long after we are gone, so they say.
It is Capitalism.
Capitalism has reached godlike status in the U.S., so much that any issue up for consideration is damn-near trampled in capitalist rhetoric. The answer to ANY issue (homelessness? student loans? food insecurity?) is a brush of the hand and a quick "let the free market decide."
Just in case you need a refresher on what Capitalism even is, let's review.
According to Wikipedia, Capitalism is "an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit."
Simple, right? Private ownership. But there's more to it than that.
Capitalism has existed on a small, individualistic scale for as long as humans have been trading ivory combs for golden coins. Technically, whenever someone trades anything for anything else, they're engaging in some form of Capitalism as we know it. That's simply because they're trading their private property in pursuit of their own interests, with no government interference.
Hurray! You should be able to trade your coins and combs, right? Of course. But Capitalism on an individual scale and what most people think of as Capitalism on a grand, ideological scale, are two different monsters.
Capitalism as a structured economic system didn't exist (or at least wasn't acknowledged... discovered?) until around the turn of the 19th century. And with it came a whole new structure of work, especially as we swung into the Industrial Age at the turn of the 20th Century.
A Brief History of Capitalism in the U.S.
Adam Smith, the father of modern-day Economics, published his famous book, The Wealth of Nations, in 1776. Throughout the centuries, nations had pointed to agriculture and gold as their source of wealth. Smith shook the political and economic world by identifying land, labor, and capital as the three major source's of a nation's wealth instead. Even more groundbreaking at the time was the idea he articulated as "the invisible hand." Smith believed that ALL business people are "led by an invisible hand... and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society." In other words, everyone naturally acts in their own best interest, but by doing so they make the nation as a whole more prosperous.
Adam Smith's timing couldn't have been more perfect.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the Enlightenment swept across Europe. For a distinctive moment in history, whole communities found personal agency that wasn't necessarily rooted in their religion or country as it had in years past. Instead, they celebrated and cherished freedom, reason, happiness, knowledge. Perhaps most important was freedom, which enabled all other worthy pursuits. And on July 4th, coincidentally the very same year that Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Those are powerful words. Men are endowed by their Creator with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The unwritten foundation for all three of those rights is property. The right to own and till your own land, to protect your family from starvation, and to pursue any level of wealth and prosperity that you desire.
The Turning Point.
Again: Hurray! You should be able to trade your coins and combs, right? Of course!
Roll tide to the turn of the 20th Century. For the first time, steel structures stretch into the clouds and are aptly named "skyscrapers". A handful of men- namely John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan- became some of the richest men to ever live. (By the way, they still hold that title to this day!)
And Capitalism seems to have taken on a bit of a different meaning.
Simply put: The Industrial Revolution took hold and Capitalism in it's most unregulated form resulted in misery for the majority of workers.
Clockwise, starting top left:
1) A girl works long hours in a cotton mill in the Carolinas, 1908 (here's a Time clip about that exact photograph)
2) Industrial workers sleep leaning against a rope, the lowest form of accommodation in Victorian England
3) "Lunch atop a Skyscraper," taken during the construction of Rockefeller Center in 1932
With the Industrial Revolution came widespread inequality and immeasurable suffering for the poor. And after decades of strikes, protests, and pushes for new legislation, it was finally changed to the point where we don't even recognize it today.
Today, tough proponents of free-market Capitalism have replaced the violence of the 20th Century with the idolatry of the 21st.
Where old tycoons of the 20th Century would have threatened and used force, tycoons of the 21st century manipulate, bribe, and- frankly- whine to Congress.
No matter what the issue is, the question hardly ever seems to be “is this a good idea?” but rather “is this a capitalist idea?” Nothing is ever right or wrong- simply "capitalist" or "communist". And- apparently- economic systems aren't here to support humans, we are here to support them.
At least, that's what I've heard over the last few years.
In March 2020, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick indicated that grandma should be willing to die for the Dow as the country slipped into the Coronavirus recession. He received a lot of criticism, but he wasn't the first to make such a statement and he won't be the last.
For at least a decade, millennials have put their lives on hold to pay off student loans- something that everyone can agree on is bad for the country as a whole. But the issue persists because as long as people say that the solution to taking out a loan is to "pay it back", they can avoid deeper rooted problems in the economy.
Essential workers face the same problem. Food and sanitation workers (janitors) are told that if they want higher wages they should simply "get a better job." However, this ignores the reality that we will always need food and sanitation workers, no matter how little they're paid.
No matter what the issue is, the question hardly ever seems to be “is this a good idea?” but rather “is this a capitalist idea?”
People of all different backgrounds are getting the same message: profit over people.
Reframing the question
My goal in this article isn't to bash Capitalism as a whole.
I could just as easily write about the inventions that came about within the U.S. economy and how many of them have helped lift millions and millions of people out of poverty.
My goal is simply to help reframe the question. To bring it from, "Is this best for the economy?" to "Is this best for society?"
(And no- the stock market is not the economy, and the economy is not society or the country as a whole)
Capitalism is not God. Capitalism is not omniscient. Capitalism does not automatically make everything “right.” Capitalism does not have a conscience.
"Let the market decide" cannot be our North Star. Our own country's history has shown what that can lead to!
And when we constantly insinuate that Capitalism is the secret divine force running our lives, what we’re actually saying is that MONEY is. And that simply isn’t true.
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