Prelude to Commonwealth, I: On Late-Stage Capitalism

Prelude to Commonwealth, I: On Late-Stage Capitalism August 30, 2019

Author’s Note:

Today’s post is a prelude to my upcoming novel Commonwealth. For the next few weeks, I’m discussing the themes and ideas that will be explored in the book. And stay tuned for the official announcement of the book site, coming soon!

* * *

Who are we?

A New Jersey school district on Tuesday evening plans to discuss whether to strictly enforce their policy of denying food to students who are more than $20 in lunch debt.

Public schools serve millions of free and reduced-price hot lunches every day. In theory, it’s a powerful equalizer for kids from disadvantaged families. But some cash-strapped, working-poor parents are unable to navigate the paperwork, or are just over the line of eligibility, or are immigrants afraid to use social welfare programs in case it calls unwelcome attention to them… and so their kids’ debts pile up.

This has led to the practice of “lunch shaming“: when students are in arrears, cafeteria workers stamp their hands with a brand of shame, or throw out their hot food in front of them and serve only cold sandwiches, or as in this case, deny them meals altogether. Even more rage-inducing, there are federal funds for lunch reimbursement, but schools are forbidden from using this money to cancel students’ debts – but they are allowed to use it to hire collection firms to harass their families, often over just a few dollars.

Whose interests does this serve? Even if the parents had the ability to pay and are refusing, withholding food punishes no one except the students. How do schools expect kids to behave, much less study and learn, if they’re hungry in class? How can we teach that bullying is wrong and expect them to take that lesson seriously, when schools themselves are singling out students and making them into targets of shame and derision for the crime of coming from poor families?

Here, another story:

Crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, Kickstarter and Indiegogo promised to unleash the limitless power of the internet to allow ordinary people to raise money for worthy causes. These sites’ creators envisioned that they’d be used for creative and educational projects, for dream trips and celebrations. Instead, as health-care costs skyrocket, medical debt has become the largest single category. It now takes up as much as one-third of all donations.

Instead of allocating care by whose need is greatest, or who has the best hope for recovery, we’ve turned the medical industry into a grotesque game show where people are forced to beg for their lives as winningly and inspirationally as possible. And, of course, some don’t make it. People have died because they tried and failed to crowdfund their insulin. One woman was told to fundraise for a heart transplant – and she’s far from the only one.

Even the CEO of GoFundMe says that the site was never meant to be used like this, and that something is dreadfully wrong when a crowdfunding page is the de facto substitute for accessible health care:

The system is terrible. It needs to be rethought and retooled. Politicians are failing us. Health care companies are failing us. Those are realities. I don’t want to mince words here. We are facing a huge potential tragedy. We provide relief for a lot of people. But there are people who are not getting relief from us or from the institutions that are supposed to be there. We shouldn’t be the solution to a complex set of systemic problems.

A third story:

The popular vision of academia is an ivory tower, blissfully above the tumult of the market, run by tenured professors who teach and do research with magisterial detachment. But over the last few decades, tenured positions have become increasingly rare. Instead, colleges and universities have quietly handed off the majority of teaching to adjuncts – assistant faculty who are paid like freelancers, based only on the number of credit-hours they teach.

Adjuncts get no benefits, no job security, and rock-bottom salaries, often $25,000 or less. Many have to stitch together work at several different colleges to make even a bare-bones living. As one said:

“As an adjunct there is no job security. I am scheduled to teach a class at [a Boston university] in the fall. That class can be canceled up to the morning it is supposed to start — and that is it. No pay. So all of us are hustling for work. If I am offered another class and there is a conflict, I have to pick one or the other — but if the one I picked is canceled, then I lose my compensation because the other one will no longer be available. They treat us like we are Kleenex.”

Across the country, adjuncts are living in their cars or sleeping on the streets, grading papers by flashlight, depending on soup kitchens for meals. Some resort to sex work or sell blood plasma to pay the bills.

When did we decide to live like this? Or did we decide?

We should be living in the most prosperous era of history. We have access to material wealth that our ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of. Millions of people take it for granted that we can jet around the world in a few hours; that we can carry pocket-sized devices that grant access to the sum total of human knowledge; that we can buy food at any supermarket that surpasses anything available to the kings and emperors of the past; that we can buy almost anything there is to buy and have it at our doorstep the next day.

It’s true that, globally, extreme poverty has declined. But that only casts the remaining areas of inequality into sharper relief. That’s especially true when those inequalities occur in wealthy, industrialized countries that absolutely could provide for the basic needs of all their citizens if they chose to.

The half-mocking, half-despairing term for our times is “late-stage capitalism”. Implicit in this coinage is the idea that things can’t continue as they are: that the system is tottering on the verge of collapse, and we’re fast approaching a tipping point where either reform will come or else civilization will tear itself apart in bloody class warfare.

Unfortunately, I have to disagree with this. History has no predefined arc, no inevitability. The reality is that civilization can and does persist indefinitely in spite of grinding poverty and mass suffering. If anything, extreme inequality is the default condition under capitalism. It’s the eras of relative equality that are the exception.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’re more than rich enough for every person to live with a reasonable level of material comfort and dignity – if the fruits of our productivity were distributed fairly. Instead, we’ve permitted a tiny minority to hoard more than they could possibly need or use – a world where billionaires turn their superyachts into floating art museums, while children go to bed hungry and teachers sleep on the streets.

I have to acknowledge that, when I write about this, I’m not speaking from personal experience. I grew up in a comfortable middle-class home; I have a graduate degree and a day job in the tech industry that pays well. I don’t have an extravagant lifestyle, but I can live the way I want and not worry about money. Most people would consider me one of the winners of capitalism.

I don’t say this to boast – I know I owe at least as much to privilege and luck as I do to hard work – but to emphasize that even I can see how the game is rigged. An Objectivist might say that the “losers” of capitalism are crying sour grapes because they’re unwilling to do what’s necessary to succeed. I’m here to say that’s not true. There are many people who work much harder than me, at objectively more important jobs, and aren’t rewarded nearly as well.

What can we do about this?

I’ll say more in a future post, but for now, a suggestion:

While it’s true there’s no inevitability to history, that goes both ways. Inequality seems like the natural order of things, so intrinsic to capitalism that it’s impossible to abolish. Then again, slavery was once likewise the natural order of things, so pervasive that it seemed impossible to have a world without it – until it was overthrown.

We can change the basic assumptions that society is built on. But to do that, we have to be able to see the goal we’re aiming at. We need to visualize the new shape of civilization in our own heads, before we can set out to make the real world conform to that image.

What would a world without inequality look like? Where would goods come from, and who would decide what should be produced? How would we match people to jobs without coercion? How would we incentivize them to use the talents and skills they possess, without making hunger or homelessness the goad?

Too many liberals and socialists gloss over these basic questions, or assume that they’ll work themselves out when the time comes. I think this gets it backwards. We need answers in hand, if we’re going to agree on how the real world needs to be changed. Maybe it’s time we started having that conversation.

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