Monday, June 16, 2014

Capitalism and Alienation

When we speak of the idea of alienation in the capitalist world we might start with a somewhat graphic quotation from Charles Bukowski taken from his novel Factotum published in 1975.

“How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”

My experience is that most workers don’t usually talk about these ideas.  Most of the time, we would prefer to talk about ideas that appear to be positive, since much of our lives are dedicated to the reality Bukowski wrote about.  This blog doesn’t attempt to dwell on the problems we face, but to look at the causes of those problems.

In a documentary about the life of Charles Bukowski he mentioned that the single person who inspired his writing was his father.  Bukowski’s father made no attempt to create a nurturing environment, and routinely brutalized his son.  In this atmosphere, Bukowski began to think creatively to mentally escape from the horrendous reality he faced.

Then, Bukowski got a job sorting mail for the Post Office.  While he eventually became an internationally respected author, Bukowski had difficulty meeting the production quotas the Post Office demanded.  He initially became a prolific writer in an attempt to escape his need to work for the Post Office.

There are other artists who endured abusive fathers to become outstanding artists.  Two of these artists were Marvin Gaye and James Baldwin.  In his song Trouble Man Marvin Gaye had this to say:

“There’s only three things that’s for sure
Taxes, death, and trouble
This I know baby, this I know sugar”

While the ideas of Marvin Gaye and Charles Bukowski might appear to be extreme to some people, the problem of alienation in the capitalist world is quite normal.  We see this on the college campuses where there is pervasive use of drugs and alcohol.  Students feel the need to indulge in these drugs at a time when they are paying exorbitant prices for the so-called privilege of receiving an education that supports the ideals of capitalism.

After a demanding workweek, what worker doesn’t want to sit down and have a drink?  The accumulated stress of working in a capitalist environment is enough to cause anyone to go to the bar for a few cold ones.

Alienation and capitalism

The question to be asked is: Why is life so alienating in the capitalist world? 

Clearly life before the advent of capitalism was extremely difficult.  While the Native Americans had difficult lives, they didn’t experience the alienation of today’s world.  This was because everyone contributed to the wellbeing of the entire tribe. 

Red Cloud was a leader of the Lakota people and was an extremely efficient hunter.  He frequently had more game than he could use and made sure that those who were in need had enough.  Red Cloud was typical of many Native American leaders who made the needs of their people their top priority.

We can contrast this reality to the one we face today in the capitalist world.  Today, about eighty percent of the population of the United States owns no more than six percent of all financial wealth.  A mere 50,000 individuals own the lion’s share of wealth in this country.  This reality is what Charles Bukowski talked about when he said that we go to work at, “a place where you essentially made lots of money for somebody else.”   

Today, we might contrast the priorities of government officials in the United States, to Red Cloud’s efforts to care for all the Lakota people.

Something happened during the 2008 Presidential election campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain.  Large banks in this country went bankrupt.  Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson asked the Congress to give about $700 billion to the banks to prevent an economic collapse in this country.  The Congress initially voted against this bailout.  Apparently Congress didn’t think that the people of this country would understand why the government was giving an obscene amount of money to some of the most affluent people in the world.

Both Obama and McCain interrupted their campaigns and went to Washington to essentially beg congress to reverse their vote.  Congress did reverse their vote.  Since that time unemployment has increased dramatically, municipal governments have had outrageous cutbacks, and school systems throughout the country have seen their budgets slashed to the bone.  However, the banks would eventually receive trillions of dollars in government aid.

Red Cloud might have never imagined the technological developments that took place since the time when he lived.  However, Red Cloud would fully understand the obscene inequality of the capitalist world.

In fact, the primary reason why the United States government carried out a genocidal war against Native Americans was because their lifestyle was incompatible with the capitalist system.  After the military defeats of the Native Americans, the government worked diligently to force Native American children to forget every aspect of their culture.  While Native Americans experienced extremely difficult lives in the past, they shared everything they had.    

Today, eighty percent of the population owns a mere six percent of the financial wealth of this country.  The above example demonstrates that government officials make it their top priority to enrich the most affluent, while the majority, who create all wealth, experience a deteriorating standard of living.

Arrogance and it’s alternative

This is the essential reason why there is alienation in the capitalist world.  Politicians, journalists and the defenders of capitalism argue that if we have problems, this is because of an insufficient individual effort.  They want us to organize our individual lives so we might be successful.  This argument negates the fact that the overall standard of living has been deteriorating for the overwhelming majority of the population.     

Along these lines there is a defender of the capitalist system who illustrates the thinking of many of his co-thinkers.  His name is Francis Fukuyama and he is the author of a book titled, “The End of History.”  This book argues that capitalism is the last political economic system humanity will experience.  Therefore the current reality will be, more or less, the best humanity can hope for.

This argument means, that while humanity has the potential to eliminate poverty, today hundreds of millions of people routinely experience hunger, and lack direct access to electricity and running water.  For Fukuyama, this is about the best humanity can hope for.

When we think of this argument, we can also think of the word arrogance.  The Merriam Webster dictionary gives the following definition of the word arrogance: 

“An insulting way of thinking that comes from believing you are better, smarter, or more important than other people.”  In other words, the word arrogance defines one of the core values of the capitalist system.

In the course of our history we’ve seen people who developed a new way of thinking and dedicated themselves to the liberation of humanity.  Some of those people were Malcolm X, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Fannie Lou Hammer, and Ida Wells.  Debs once argued:

“While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Those who attempt to rationalize this system need to be arrogant.  Is it any wonder that people become alienated from those who feel they are better than the majority? Malcolm X, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, and Ida Wells worked to bring about a world where working people would enjoy the fruits of our labor.

I will conclude this column with a quotation from James Baldwin that I believe gives us a sense of the future.

“Power, then, which can have no morality itself, is yet dependent on human energy, on the wills and desires of human beings.  When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt.  When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities––and seas of blood.  The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything.  They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them.  They realize this––paradoxically––by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principals on which a new world will be built.” 

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