The above question came from Muley, a tenant farmer in “The Grapes of Wrath,” who reacted to a caterpillar tractor operator who was under orders to evict him, and demolish the home where his family farmed for three generations. The driver said he was just following orders, if Muley shot him another man would replace him. Muley then said: “But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.” The driver responds: “I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all. Maybe like you said, the property’s doing it.”
I am sympathetic to Muley’s frustration, because of the anger that comes up after my daily monitoring of progressive and left-leaning blogs, websites, and radio programs about political events and the negative influence of capitalism on working people. As a member of the working class who has been manipulated and exploited throughout my work life, I believe I have good reason to be pissed off at them (whoever they are and wherever they live). But I try get over that need for vengeance when I see how these thoughts and feelings are misplaced, while they also raise my blood pressure and are psychologically and socially damaging, making me angry and unapproachable some of the time. After some reflection, I’ve come to recognize that I needed to look into the reasons why I’m in this frustrating fix. One of my solutions was to try to understand the underlying structure that brought this on, which I’ve come to identify as the historically shifting system of capitalism, through its relentless squandering of the lives of workers and ruining the earth in its search for profits through growth. So it’s not “who do we shoot?” but rather, what is responsible? It’s not a person but a system.
Through my study of capitalism I’ve come to see myself not as a pissed off worker getting screwed by my bosses, but as part of a larger, potentially powerful and supportive group—a member of the working class (still getting screwed, but by a system). At least now I’m not alone. I have others to share and understand my anger and to engage with in discussions and political action, but more against our bosses as representative of a system rather than the inhumanity of our immediate bosses (although we still did a fair amount of trashing our immediate bosses to maintain our sanity on the job). That seems healthier. I also discovered that blaming my bosses and not examining the system is exactly what the mass media, business propaganda, the public relations industry, education, advertising, and daily life, trained me to do. These forces transformed me from a social individual, my natural state, into a powerless isolate, disconnected from the natural world, in competition with everything, accumulating commodities to maintain my self-worth, believing that ultimately I am mostly responsible for my problems and that I should be able to solve them.
In my study of capitalism one of the things I learned was to see class as a group of human beings who share common interests because they experience common conditions at work. I concluded that terms like “capitalist class” should not necessarily lead to judgments or criticisms of individuals within these classes. Classes do, however, reveal the limitations and opportunities for individuals within each class. I learned to focus more on the outcome of class membership on individuals rather than blaming individuals for their actions. For example, a corporate board chairman born into a wealthy family can be a compassionate individual, a philanthropist, and a devoted father and husband. At the same time, the nature of his life experiences as a member of the capitalist class forces him to act in a certain way that is beneficial to his class. He can lay off a group of employees or shut down a factory. These actions, which are catastrophic to the lives of the working class, are based on the need for his corporation to survive in the competitive market and not primarily on his character (although the rich and powerful are more likely to act unethically). It is true that as a member of the capitalist class, he is responsible for the workers’ catastrophe, but focusing blame on the individual obscures an understanding of how capitalism works, of how it creates an unequal society and extracts profits from workers by demeaning them and paying them less than the value they created through their work. The surplus workers produce, of course, is used to enhance accumulation, expansion and control.
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As much as I support people when they criticize and organize about growing inequality or problems like human caused climate change, ecological destruction, unemployment, the war on women, excessive military spending and the growing security state, I notice that they often fail to place their criticisms in a larger context. The critiques too often fail to fault the capitalist system that is largely responsible for many of those problems. This is exactly what I failed to do prior to my study of capitalism. Even today, when the problems are painfully excessive, usually involving children, animals and victims of wars, I sometimes fall into my earlier angry stage. I fortunately get shaken out of my vindictive anger when I combine my study of capitalism with my memory of the first time I read the opening pages of an essay by Oscar Wilde titled “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” Where he wrote (my underlining):
“The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism… They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”
Wilde’s essay stunned me, especially the last underlined sentence. It allowed me to see how my empathy temporarily clouded my awareness and critique of capitalism. Ironically capitalists used the paltry handouts of charity (including money and grants from various foundations) to tout their humaneness and also hinder potential rebellions by the dispossessed that could cause a loss of profits, while at the same time blaming the recipients of charity for their laziness and incompetence.
The first underlined sentences also caused me to pause and ask how reforms could benefit the continuation of such an unjust system. Although reforms are a short-term help to a few (as is charity), they give legitimacy to the system without questioning the relationship between its primary assumptions and outcome: profit, accumulation, private ownership, commodification of practically everything, and competition leading to control by the few, which in turn leads to inequality and shorter lives for those with less wealth.
Those sentences also taught me to be doubtful about the effectiveness of reforms, for example, the drive to end inequality. When I listen to Robert Reich I am inspired and impressed by his values, humor, pedagogy, presentation, facts, historical analysis and his attempts to organize people for action. In his film “Inequality for all,” Reich demonstrated an understanding of why the system works as it does. He explained that some inequality was inevitable, for it acted as an incentive. But it becomes a problem when Wall Street occupies the government and sets the rules about who benefits and who suffers. In a recent article Reich acknowledged that we are moving closer to an oligarchy. Yet in spite of the pessimism regarding our current situation he said:
“Our goal and the goal of America as a capitalist democracy has never been to get rid of capitalism. But time and again, we have saved capitalism from its own excesses. In other words, what we did in the progressive era between 1901 and 1916 and what we did in the 1930s in the New Deal and what we did again in the war on poverty, and what we did again to some extent in the 1990s is to prevent capitalism from going off the rails, to make sure that capitalism is working as it should work.”
Reich praises capitalism as an important historically liberating system, which delivered great wealth. But he also recognizes that proposals to solve inequality have a tough road ahead since if you “Connect the dots … you see how the big-money takeover of our democracy has led to an economy that’s barely functioning for most Americans.”
In order to solve the problem of inequality, Reich advocated reforms. He used the historic examples of the progressive era and the New deal, as models of successful reforms that kept capitalism on the rails. In his recent book, Thomas Piketty pointed out that the positive examples Reich cites are aberrations, and the current level of inequality is closer to the historical norm.
Today, capitalism is in the midst of major crises and reaching a tipping point that will diminish the likelihood of reforms because: 1) capitalists, especially those in the newer financial sector, are gaining more control of the government while there is no countervailing force of ruling class interests and little from labor organizations; 2) capitalists have a powerful variety of sophisticated ways to control and manipulate the minds of the masses through propaganda, education, mass media, the growing security state, internet surveillance and advertising, whose effects have left most Americans passive, scared and ignorant; and 3) capitalism’s output is entering a period of decline due to its reliance on the waning lifeline of fossil fuels, as well as ecological deterioration, growing scarcities and climate change, which are threatening the very survival of life on the planet. Attempts to correct this decline do not necessarily mean that we will have a “green capitalist future.” Capitalism will most likely circle its wagons by trying to maintain itself off the backs of the declining society by transforming into disaster or catabolic capitalism. (When capitalism begins to run out of energy and stops growing, it begins to seek profits by consuming the society that it shaped—it becomes catabolic.)
Although I support and follow Robert Reich when he tells his followers to write, organize or call their representative to lessen inequality, I also need to jump back to Oscar Wilde who reminds me to focus on the fact that the wealth and power of the capitalist class is wrongly attained through a system designed to help the few at the expense of the many. I also add that we have new evidence that capitalism’s need for growth is making the earth uninhabitable.
As we organize to act against the status quo, we should spend more of our time understanding and critiquing the capitalist system, especially the reliance on its life support—fossil fuels—and then connect the analysis to the actions of those who want reform. This larger systemic focus will lend new depth to their reform efforts (and perhaps a greater interest and public discussion about the usefulness of capitalism). This is a good time to begin (or join others who have already begun) because today more Americans are stripped of their political power, in poverty, losing their jobs, and losing hope for their children and the future, so they will be more receptive to criticisms of the system and more likely to work together, inspired by Wilde’s proposal “to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty [and ecological devastation] will be impossible.”
Conclusion: Analysis and action needs to be based on understanding the system, not on “Who can we shoot?” The system is not merely the economic system—capitalism. A systemic investigation of capitalism must begin with the earth, in which we are rooted and from which we get sustenance. With such an approach we will come to agree with the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, when he stated: “If we want to save the planet earth to save life and humanity, we are obliged to end the capitalist system.”