Cutting Capitalism Out of Our Relationships

“People get so involved with playing the game of being important that they exhaust themselves and their time, and they don’t do the work of actually organizing people.” Ella Baker

Capitalism does not just rule over the large-scale functions of the society we live in. It also infiltrates our interpersonal relationships. There are plenty among us who are sick of the capitalist system, but our actions don’t always reflect this. Plenty of self-described anti-capitalists and progressives end up exploiting their lovers, partners, family and friends on behalf of themselves in capitalistic ways. The labor of the everyday lives we’re already used to is multiplied by the often predictable selfishness of people who want to “succeed” and are ready and willing to sacrifice others to do so. By observing the capitalistic interactions we have with those in our own movements, relationships and communities, we can begin to understand just how sinister the system that permeates our lives really is.

As part of our politics, the practice of anti-capitalism must go beyond being something merely spoken or claimed. It’s long been said that “the personal is political,” and we have to continue attending to the truth of these words today. The world as we know it has to undergo a dramatic change for the Earth’s sake. For that shift to begin, we must actively challenge the notion that we should view others solely as expendable resources in the same way capitalism produces goods from natural resources through extraction and overexploitation. Though the personal impacts of the harm that individuals’ actions produce certainly don’t share the same magnitude as the harms created by a large, vulturous system, both types of harm should still be addressed within their appropriate respective contexts.

Too many people and too many entities get too comfortable fashioning themselves as leaders and viewing people as commodities.

The ongoing questions about how major tech corporations — especially social media giants — are reaching into our personal and private lives for the purpose of extraction raises questions about where else these sorts of intrusions take place. Too many people and too many entities get too comfortable fashioning themselves as leaders and viewing people as commodities. We can see them using avenues like social media and social movements as places to observe and extract from people without even necessarily having to interact with them much. They can also easily acquire what they need and go quietly unnoticed. Many do this because they are trying to carefully get the information and assets they need to benefit themselves or their branding while sequestering themselves in more ways than one for personal accumulation’s sake. This is happening across many sites where it shouldn’t. Though this is very capitalistic, it isn’t just the elite who engage in this sort of behavior, because we can see it in the causes we work for and the close relationships we take part in. We may not need to look much further than the everyday interpersonal communications and relations we have with one another to find the evidence that this is the case.

Capitalism is all around us. It’s in the entitlement that too many men feel to control, dominate and abuse. It’s in the conquests that people set out to achieve in their daily lives. How people treat one another is reinforced by the power that capitalism affords some and not others based on the discrimination and oppression that helped build this system in the first place. Capitalism reinforces the oppressiveness of homophobia, sexism, transphobia, racism and other oppressions because it has established itself with them. We’re constantly at war, some of us much more than others, based on how racial capitalism has devalued our lives.

We’re constantly at war, some of us much more than others, based on how racial capitalism has devalued our lives.

Along the lines of race, gender, class and much more, we are brutalized for the bodies and conditions we were born into. This happens so much that many people overexert themselves, hoping to live vicariously through the elite classes of people who look like them and with whom they share certain identities. People may hope to go from surviving to thriving, and when they do, it’s supposed to proffer hope to the masses of people wanting to achieve the same. Countless people will die wanting to accumulate lots of money without ever doing so. Meanwhile, the system escapes scrutiny far too often for causing such a near-impossible scramble.

Fame and fortune dictate far too much in our society. This happens so much that those who are famous regularly instigate public backlash for making uninformed comments about all sorts of issues. Media outlets invite popular celebrities to comment on a wide array of serious social issues not because they’ll provide any sort of expertise, but because they are famous. This often means that those who need to be heard most are looked over. Instead of the thinkers and activists who know these issues best, highly visible celebrities of all sorts are given even more attention than what has already been afforded to them. While some celebrities may try to do better and highlight the voices of activists, they too often rely on a few celebrity activists, rather than tapping the breadth of the grassroots.

The tokenization of chosen activists around a given issue reveals a basic disconnect. The rich and famous work through the predictable gears of the liberal nonprofit industrial complex to brand themselves as “conscious.” They use major corporatized nonprofits, ghost-written op-eds, popular politicians and activists to demonstrate their advocacy. Through money, funding and the splendor of prosperity they “make a difference.” In turn, movements become more centrist and get watered down by the hypervisibility of those who prioritize their branding and public image. Activists and movements can become parodies of themselves so that actors like the state, the wealthy and the famous can validate themselves. Furthermore, when activists become famous themselves and begin to amass surplus wealth for their activism, they can become microcosms of the nonprofit industrial complex, which is dependent on social problems persisting in order to retain its relevance, revenues and social capital. The loss of sincerity in this regard drowns out needed radical changes that the public deserves with a flood of money, fame and performativity.

Our relationships are important because they should be a reflection of the world we want to live in. This is the difference between real movements that provide us with the sustenance of good transformation and what I like to think of as microwavable movements, or efforts that rely on stale repetitive actions and trite activism. We need organic grassroots efforts, not overly processed mechanisms meant to simply look like real nourishment. Our communities and our people are not products. Our efforts to make a difference should not be reducible to canned responses that are ready to be employed whenever the problems we’re used to flare up once again. This sort of predictability isn’t about transformation, and it looks like an overemphasis on what we desire for ourselves, not the greater good. We shouldn’t be reacting just for the sake of reacting so we can say we did something. Just as interpersonal relationships break down when people prioritize themselves and disregard the people they care about, organizing can break down when this happens just the same.

If we’re dependent on corporate-capitalist relations to build ourselves and our movements, we’re failing.

Many of us engage reluctantly and bitterly with the problems posed by this capitalistic society. Still, the process of dismantling the inherent injustice of it all relies on our willingness to interact with it as a prolonged process. This journey is an everyday project. I often think about what this means for my own life. For me, writing and being visible have meant amassing a substantial following of my own on social media, and my ability to make a living is often connected to how seen I am across various platforms. It makes me reflect on how much space I’m taking up and if I’m really utilizing that space to help others to the best of my ability. It bothers me sometimes to enter the spotlight and be observed during the moments when my words are shared far and wide, but I cling to that discomfort to ground myself. The same way I navigate existing within a capitalist society, and unwillingly partaking in it, is how I figure out what’s too much for the sake of personal gain. There’s a difference between comfort and excess. When we choose to strategically undermine what we know are incarnations of a greedy hoarding economic ideology in our relationships and interactions, we allow ourselves the greatness of a possibility for more wholesome fulfillment.

To end capitalism, we have to end capitalism both within and around us.

Fame and money do not automatically make a person insincere. The insincerity of this capitalist system, however, is certainly upheld in part by the extravagance of fame and money. We don’t have to be broke and unpopular to be genuine, but if the logic we use to define our success resembles capitalism, we’re going in a terrible circle. What separates us from the system that oppresses us? If we’re dependent on corporate-capitalist relations to build ourselves and our movements, we’re failing. To succeed, we need to sustain an extensive campaign that pulls people away from their investment in the unacceptable status quo.

A world free from police would solve the problem of murderous police. A world free from profit-driven health care would reduce illness. A world free from vulturous, capitalistic exchanges would lead to better relationships. Those who disregard such things as overly idealistic and immature are attached to a world that regularly gives us death and misery rather than common decency. To end capitalism, we have to end capitalism both within and around us. When we liberate our relationships from patterns of thought that replicate the inequalities built into our social systems, a great love can exist that gives us a new feeling of freedom. That freedom can bring us closer to what many may have once thought was a utopian dream.