Still Slaves to the Capitalist System

capitalismMackenzie C- Period 6

Does capitalism make us more or less free? It would seem to offer freedom of choice, since the market is affected by the consumers’ decisions- and its division of labor certainly makes it highly productive, if nothing else. However, do those benefits outweigh the lack of freedom that comes from not being able to fulfill your basic needs and rights? As a system, capitalism in the United States today is an unethical one, built on imperialism and slave labor.

It was slavery that allowed America to emerge as a global power when it was starting out; the abundance of free labor and no ethical limits on how to use such labor led to an ever increasing amount of output, especially in the cotton industry.

Enslaved people were given a quota to pick. Anyone who didn’t make their quota was whipped. As soon as they made the new quota, a new higher one was required, again on pain of the whip.

This torture compelled enslaved people to constantly innovate in the desperate drive to produce ever more cotton. Baptist writes that this “repeatedly accomplished the enslaver’s ongoing goal of forcing enslaved people to invent, over and over again, ways to make their own labor more efficient and profitable for their owners.”

The cotton extracted by this forced labor fueled the growth of U.S. capitalism. The first modern factories were textile mills to turn cotton into cloth that could make clothing. Northern financiers invested directly in slavery. They bought from and sold to slave owners. Bankers and investors even bought bonds secured by the title deeds to enslaved people whose labor was now a commodity. [1]

While slavery has been abolished, we continue to labor under a system that upholds racism, resulting, as one consequence, in the wage gap between white and black people: “The slavery they endured is gone, but U.S. capitalism’s super-exploitation of Black labor has never ended. In 2011, with Barack Obama in the White House, white households made $27,415 more a year than African American households.” [2]

In addition, capitalism has led to a competition between countries which fueled their imperialism and the exploitation of the people they conquered. American imperialism, in particular, can be seen in its treatment of countries such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, taking them as possessions from the Spanish, whom the United States had defeated.

In the 100 years since the Spanish-American War, the U.S. has invaded Cuba five times, Honduras four times, Panama four times, the Dominican Republic twice, Haiti twice, Nicaragua twice and Grenada once… So much for U.S. rhetoric about opposing aggression… at the end of the day, the U.S. is prepared to use brute force to back up its economic and political threats. That is why the U.S. fought the 1991 Gulf War. The war was not about peace and democracy, but about protecting the West’s oil supplies in the Gulf. [3]

You might say that imperialism is a separate entity from capitalism, but one does lead naturally to the other. Imperialism is an undeniable part of capitalism’s past; variations of it continue today and they are likely to continue to do so in the future as well.

According to Bukharin, imperialism is the result of two conflicting tendencies in modern capitalism.

Competition tends to give rise to the concentration and centralization of capital, and as this process develops, the state comes to play an increasingly active role in managing the economy. Bukharin argued that there is, in fact, a tendency for capital and the state to merge together on the national level to form what he called “state capitalist trusts.”

But at the same time, there is a tendency for production, trade and investment to break out of national boundaries and to become organized on a global scale.

Bukharin argued that as a consequence of these two contradictory processes, economic competition between capitals increasingly tends to take on the form of geopolitical competition. In other words, economic competition comes to be expressed in terms of political and military rivalries between states for territory, influence and power.[4]

Can a system that encourages military aggression and the exploitation of less developed countries really make us free? It seems that so-called “freedom” is won only at the cost of others’ resources and even lives. This can be seen closer to home in the experiences of the poor and homeless here in the United States. While there are enough resources to go around, under capitalism it would be counterproductive to actually distribute said resources.

Above all, capitalism wastes human life. The U.S. spends billions to warehouse 2 million people–many of them young Black and Latino men–in overcrowded prisons. It provides sub-par education to millions of poor students, sending a message that their lives will amount to nothing.

Are people homeless in America because there’s a shortage of homes? And if that’s the case, is there a shortage of homes because we don’t have the concrete, the wood and the steel to build them?

The truth is that under capitalism, there’s no incentive to build low-cost housing for the homeless–because it isn’t profitable to do so.

The same goes for the more than 800 million people in the world who go hungry. It isn’t profitable to feed them. So food is stockpiled or destroyed rather than distributed to them.[5]

Ultimately, capitalism places profit over the right to life, which cuts off any further freedom of choice by forcing people to struggle for mere survival. And while it seems to be an efficient system if you look at the level and diversity of output, it is, in fact, dependent on the purposeful wasting of resources.

While it’s true that capitalist competition acts as a spur to increase production, it’s also an extremely wasteful system. One need only think of the multibillion-dollar advertising industry or the military-industrial complex to see how much labor is wasted on essentially worthless enterprises.

Imagine what the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on weapons of mass destruction or on ads to convince us to buy one brand of sugar water over another could do in fixing crumbling schools, providing universal health care and cleaning up environmental degradation.

Moreover, because capitalist enterprises depend on increasing profits and market share, they must continually sell their products in ever greater quantities.

There is therefore a built-in incentive on the part of capitalists to produce things that don’t last. Think of the college textbook industry where the same $60 book is reissued with a new introduction and rearranged chapters in order to prevent students from using older editions.[6]

Not only are people not given adequate resources for survival but they are actually punished for their failure to succeed, which can be observed in the criminalization of homelessness that is taking place.

Even though most cities do not provide enough affordable housing, shelter space, and food to meet the need, many cities use the criminal “justice” system to punish people living on the street for doing things that they need to do to survive. Such measures often prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or begging in public spaces and include criminal penalties for violation of these laws. Some cities have even enacted food sharing restrictions that punish groups and individuals for serving homeless people. Many of these measures appear to have the purpose of moving homeless people out of sight, or even out of a given city.[7]

This fuels the prison industrial complex as well as soothing people’s guilty consciences by taking the problem out of sight and out of mind, rather than actually dealing with the root of the issue which forced them into homelessness in the first place.

It could perhaps be said that prisons hold modern-day slaves- but that’s ridiculous! Slavery in the United States was abolished centuries ago… “except as a punishment for crime.”[8] In fact, the US “holds 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of the world’s people.”[9] That’s an overwhelming amount of people being locked up, especially in proportion to other countries’ incarceration rates. A multitude of factors goes into the increasing prison population, but one of the main ones is the nearly-free labor that becomes available when large portions of the population are behind bars, where they cannot skip work or protest for higher wages.

According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.[10]

With this kind of motivation, many parties have a stake in increasing the prison population by arresting more people and keeping them in prison for longer. Without capitalism, the prison industrial complex would collapse, and the number of people being sent to jail for nonviolent crimes should decrease dramatically.

Over all, capitalism does value the freedom of a select few- the rich, or as Marx would say, the bourgeoisie- but to do so, it must crush the poor and take away their freedom, even their right to life. Capitalism necessitates turning a blind eye towards this type of exploitation and disregard for both life and human dignity- but we, as individuals, must acknowledge it in order to take steps towards eradicating these injustices. We cannot say that a system makes us free when to do so depends on the oppression of everyone else.

[1] Boyer, Sandy. “The Sun, the Rain and the Whip.” Socialistworker.org. April 21, 2015. Accessed May 2, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Selfa, Lance. “U. S. Imperialism: A Century of Slaughter.” International Socialist Review. 1999. Accessed May 3, 2015.

[4] Gasper, Phil. “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.” SocialistWorker.org. December 2, 2008. Accessed May 3, 2015.

[5] D’Amato, Paul. “Is the Free Market Efficient?” SocialistWorker.org. April 20, 2012. Accessed May 3, 2015.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.” The National Coalition for the Homeless. July 2009. Accessed May 3, 2015.

[8] U.S. Const. amend. XIII. Sec. 1.

[9] Pelaez, Vicky. “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?” Global Research. March 31, 2014. Accessed May 3, 2015.

[10] Ibid.

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2 thoughts on “Still Slaves to the Capitalist System

  1. Very good post! I definitely agree with all the points you made. Capitalism and the American economy were founded on slavery and they still need slavery to thrive. When it became offically illegal they found new ways to keep the working class slaves. Our economy cannot exist without throwing the poorest of the poor under the bus.

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