Servitude Sine Qua Non Capitalism

The daily sweat burning August sun into the red of my neck, head bent day long placing pavers up a driveway to a three car garage. Exhaustion is when limbs get numb, dehydration underestimating the volume of a gallon water jug. When the lightpost by the cascading stoop comes on, lights an orb with edges dissipating into a night hiding the house’s upper-floors… there is something I’ve missed. I am supposed to be home and I am still laying bricks. The stars in the sky out-competed by the porch lights deck lights driveway lights garage lights lawn lights of the much-acheived sub-division. I stand up from the bricks and turn a confused circle. I am pushing a brick-loaded wheelbarrow back down to the pick-up, curb parked. The pick-up has accrued at some point several tickets beneath the wipers. The wheelbarrow catches an unevenly-laid brick and the weight is a moment tumbling free of my hands. I was supposed to be home. There is something I have missed. My kid is asleep and my wife on her one night off is waiting up for me. It wasn’t supposed to be this. Suburban lights have lawns glowing green, surreally, past the windows of the pick-up. I must have made a wrong turn. The GPS doesn’t plug in anywhere and my flip-phone isn’t receiving 2G. Somewhere in a cul-de-sac I have become lost. I am sweating needle-pricks from my goosebumps and I don’t know where I am. In the windshield are memory-versions of myself sitting in college classrooms, studying in the library, taking rum from my empty pockets sleeping nowhere, and in a mindless storm of impulse rocketing my future down a highway away from school, towards towns I’d yet to explore. And needed. And desired. A life not spent bent supplicating paychecks from the boss’s desk. I am on my own. And I am crushed. And my family has no future in a townhouse past the gentrified edge. And I am sinking in debt and insurance and credit scores I refuse to check. And I am told to hire a crew. If I’d just stayed in school a degree and then ten people working under me. I must have become confused. Or corrupted, with some sick ideal a dozen people shouldn’t work beneath me. I am a fuck up. The windshield a translucent reflection bloated to dimensions of pathetic ethics, face pallid stained with blood sinking into a gut that won’t climb itself a single capitalist rung. Idealistic refusal and the delusion my children will be better off. That I work for no one and I run no one, and I am confused. It is four in the morning in a cul-de-sac and the pick-up still a mile down the driveway. There is something I have missed. I am placing the bricks back in the wheelbarrow and this is the day beginning. I was supposed to be home.

The Real Shit of Capitalism

I can go grocery shopping, and while at the same super-market I can do my banking, get a medical check-up, buy drugs, drink at a bar, eat a rotisserie dinner, drop my kid off at daycare, go Christmas shopping, sit at a cafe, and listen to a live band.

I can buy a 2-liter of Pepsi, or a bottle of water, or stop to eat KFC or Taco Bell and I’d be giving my five dollars to the same small group of investors. I can buy contact-solution, soap, toothpaste, hair-dye, deodorant, or tampons, and I’m giving money to the same CEO.

What extremely sucks about this society of advanced capitalism is how few people are capable of owning so much. Whether or not consolidation is the inevitable, natural outcome of capitalism is debatable – humanity’s only tried it once – but I do like listening to Adam Smith of all people, as he decries, “All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”

We all know the Walmart Effect: Walmart opens, and several businesses close their doors. A super-market opens, and several grocers go under, and the bakery, the butcher, the pharmacist, cafe, optometrist….

Someone opens a fast-food restaurant. Okay, great. Have at it you producer of fine burgers and fries. And then they open 500 more. 10 other people do something similar. Now, if you’d like to own a burger joint in America, your only option is to work for one of these 10 other people – either you franchise one of their stores, or you open a rogue burger-and-fry joint and go out of business because you can’t compete with a national dollar menu.

Same if you’d like to open a hardware store, a barber shop, a pizzeria, a bar and grill, a cafe, a toy-store, etc. Want to make sinks or small-engines? Kohler will destroy you.

This consolidation into massive chains and conglomerations and corporations could very well be the natural, inevitable outcome of a free-market. But we had free-markets before we had capitalism, and we had free-markets long before we had mass-chains, conglomerations, and doctors’ office in grocery stores: we should be able to have a free-market and mom-and-pop toy stores, at the same time.

A market dominated by a handful of people isn’t free. An economy, or a country, where you can’t own your own business, or produce your own product, where you cannot survive unless you ‘earn a living’ as part of a massive corporate beehive, isn’t a free market, or a free country.

I believe in free-markets, but nobody’s free if they need $20 million in capital and a nationwide supply-chain if they’d like to own their own hardware store: our only option is to choose a corporate beehive, and await our bi-weekly allotments of honey. In America, we have no self-sufficiency, no independence or liberty.

“Hey Marty, long-time no see. What beehive are you earning a living from these days?”

 

Small Little Hierarchies

I have myself working food for the winter, until my outdoor job starts up again. I cook food in the morning, drive it to a corporate cafeteria, and serve it to hundreds of people on their lunch-breaks. I have a tremendous dislike for this job. Not just the serving food at insurance headquarters and Bailout Bank corporate-parks, but the owner of the fast-casual restaurant I work for runs the restaurant as a labor mill – productivity isn’t high enough, make the employees do more but don’t give them raises, $9.00/hr is plenty for them to run themselves sick over grills and rice pots and mashing avocados.

Most of the people I work with are Mexican, both legally in the US and illegally in the US, and the rest are middle-aged white people who spite authority and social greed and don’t understand why the owner of the restaurant, who owns a dozen other restaurants, needs to make the GM work 70 hours a week because he’s refusing to give anybody a minute of overtime.

We’ll call the owner Gary.

Which brings me to a reason I don’t like hierarchy – people shouldn’t hold authority over other people. But if you want to survive, you have to live with the authority others have to determine your value as a human, because there is no way for you to be self-sustaining – you are fully dependent on the system, and you need that hourly-wage.

The corporate cafeterias we serve are all managed by a single company, which we’ll call Quantico. The regional manager is a maybe-27-year-old blonde woman. We were setting up the line in a cafeteria, getting ready to serve, when she walked in and was greeted by my boss, Gary, the owner of the dozen fast-food restaurants.

We’ll call this woman Maggie. Maggie is a good-looking woman in a pantsuit and a business hair-bun, holding a binder of Important Documents. She picks up a conversation with Gary, saying, “I’ve been running all over trying to find more tickets for you guys but none of the stores have any. I went to OfficeMax, Giant Eagle, Wal-Mart – I swear I’ve never hated shopping so much.”

To which my co-worker Bill chimes in, “Oh, sure, I doubt you ever hate shopping.”

Maggie looks from Gary to Bill, blinks at Bill with her mouth slack…

And just picture this for a moment, because Bill’s close to 40, rents a shitty duplex where homeless addicts piss in alleys with gunshots somewhere down the street; drives a 1995 Mazda, works two part-time jobs at $9/hour, and has no desire to marry or to Get A Real Job. And Bill, who has never met Maggie, the Regional Manager for Quantico (and technically our boss), has just made a blatantly misogynistic remark to her. This decimates all norms of our social hierarchy – for this, I appreciate Bill, marginalizing the authority this woman is supposed to have over him.

Bill was a high school baseball-star. He got caught smoking pot in high school, but the teacher let him go. He’s had numerous girlfriends over the years, proud to have dated the high school prom-queen. He was arrested once for drunk-driving. He used to sell landscaping equipment with great commission, but quit after 10 years because he was bored of it. He has several of his dad’s old guns, and lived on unemployment for a while. Bill lives a simple life, no aspirations to make more money than he needs. He’s also active in his church, which is how he knows our General Manager, which is how he got the job – neighbor helping neighbor, an important part of Bill’s All-American, Anti-Authority character.

We’re serving food at another cafeteria for a large insurance company. The lunch rush is over and the line has slowed down. Two young woman walk in. They both have blonde hair, are in shape, and look to be about 22 or 23 years old. The one who is a bit taller does the talking, and has a deeper voice. They’re sharing a meal, and the taller one places the order, does the questioning about “What’s that stuff, there?”. The shorter one stays quiet, holding her own arms or hands or leaning on the counter, staying right next to the taller girl.

The taller girl is wearing an Oktoberfest Munchen shirt. I’m excited. I ask her about it; I’ve been to Munich, but never to the festival. How was it? She tells me all about it, it was amazing. Her name’s Sara. And this is great – because here are two young women with affection between them, excitement because they’re new to each other. And their faces are clear and bright to be alive, because they go to Europe and to music festivals and road trips to national parks; because they are happy to be alive and to experience and explore and have in-depth conversations with spontaneous strangers sitting in GreyHound bus stations because it’s raining while they wait for the bus to Arizona. They are free and beautiful people.

The couple gets their food and walks away towards the cafeteria tables. Bill says something to our other co-worker, and they share to each other how excellent it would be to get between those Two Hot Lesbians – Damn, that was excellent, I can only imagine what I’d do them.

Bill and my other co-worker keep glancing over at the couple, and the two Hot Lesbians are quiet at a table by themselves, and the table is cordoned off in the middle of the cafeteria, and there is a large marquee sign above them, and they are insecure and timid and looking only at their Insurance Corporation lunch.

 

Unjust Criticism

I took a part-time job over the winter. My usual lawn care job hits the skids right around Thanksgiving, and I still get 20 hours a week at the warehouse, but I needed a second part-time to fill the gaps.

My wife got me a job. She works at a fast-casual chain restaurant. She knows the owner, an older man, Ted, who owns half-a-dozen other chain restaurants. Ted’s just purchased a new location. The new location was hiring someone to cook, transport, and serve catering orders. I took the job.

My opinion of Ted has been that he’s your typical capitalist: have a lot of capital, buy a lot of servitude-huts, pay your overworked employees in crap so you can save up for the new beach house in Daytona you’ve been desiring.

But… of course there’s a but, or else this wouldn’t be blog material…

I can no longer dislike Ted for buying up franchises. I still dislike him for paying my wife crap while hiring new, less qualified, shitty employees and paying them several dollars an hour more than my wife. But…

For all I know his capitalist motivation is to support his family. He’s a grandparent; maybe this is his way of ensuring his grandkids receive excellent educations and health care. Maybe he striving to ensure a leg-up for the next three generations of the Ted Family. I don’t know if he donates.

Or maybe he’s decided his life-purpose  is to work and succeed as much as he can, as long as he can (Ted’s in his 70’s), because this is how a person best contributes to society. And in our society, this usually explicitly means succeeding within the capitalist model.

I’d rather people ran their own, single stores, instead of owning dozens. The right to property is the only right that infringes on the right of another: if you own this material, no one else can. If you own a share of the market, no one else can; and I see no need to take in more than you need. Owning one successful restaurant is plenty.

But… I cannot broad-brush dislike, disdain, or spite people who practice capitalism – I refuse to carry these tarnished emotions with me. And I know people practice capitalism because it is what our society practices and preaches. If you wish to support the next three generations of the Ted Family, you support them by succeeding in our system, which happens to be capitalist. I also must accept that I don’t know whether Ted can see beyond capitalism.

(This does not dispel my animosity towards Dimon, Geithner, Bushes, Clintons, Obamas of the country. If you consciously destruct, deceive, and degrade others, you deserve the animosity you yourself have extended: This will be my distinction between ‘honest’ capitalists and criminal capitalists.)

I’ve come to admire Ted for his constant hard work. The man is in his 70’s, and he gets up at 3am most weekdays, and runs back and forth between his two newest stores. The store I work at is making a lot of new business catering orders, and Ted’s been there every day working hard alongside us poorly-paid employees.

It bears to mention, as it always goes, that I wasn’t able to change my opinion of the man until I began to know him.

PS: You hate the game, but don’t hate the player.

Possibilities and Capitalism

Capitalism gets a lot of justified criticism – conglomerations own everything, banks submerge economies, pharmaceutical CEO’s drastically raise prices for profit. But everything in extreme is detrimentalit’s difficult to justify the categorical denunciation of capitalism.

So I won’t do it. Basic capitalism is using private capital to produce goods or services for a fee: using money to make money. It sounds like a Private Pyle, but it’s not inherently bad; using money to make money can be positive or negative.

Private Pyle, from Full Metal Jacket

 

 

Money is the quantification of our possibilities: the more money you have, the more you can do.

You can use your possibilities to further pursue more of your own possibilities – you inherit one million dollars and decide to turn it into ten million by opening a plastics factory. To keep the plastics factory operating, you need a product that’s superior to the cheap China-crap, and you develop better plastic. Your one million dollars is now one billion dollars and you’ve given 10,000 people full-time jobs and revolutionized materials science in the process. You’ve expanded the possibilities of the human race. (Very Ayn Randian.)

You can also further your own possibilities by limiting the possibilities of others. You can slander your competition, or you can purchase your competition, or you can use your money to gut a company, or you can use your possibilities to persuade legislators to over-regulate your competition, or to deregulate your own business. You’ve now expanded your own possibilities by limiting the possibilities of others, and you’re a total asshole with a yacht.

There’s an ethical conundrum —>  What of the CEO that revolutionizes the digital age (expanding possibilities for everyone) but then uses brutal labor in a foreign country and practices engineered obsolescence to keep people buying: isn’t this person expanding more possibilities than he takes? But isn’t he also expanding his own possibilities by limiting those of others, for instance, limiting the possibilities of all the people buying a new Iphone every six months, or the domestic manufacturers who lose their jobs?

Capitalism works excessively well when people open possibilities for themselves by opening possibilities for others, even if this is only a consequence and not a goal, and capitalism becomes destructive when people open possibilities for themselves by closing possibilities for others (Subprimes, TPP, Martin Shkreli).

When people use their Ego (their will, their power, their possibilities) for others, everyone benefits. When people use their Ego to benefit themselves, ie, they greedily build a plastics factory to get super rich – even though they’re only doing it for themselves, they’re giving possibilities to a lot of other people in the process (Ayn Rand again).

But, of course, Martin Shkreli.

Capitalist societies are prosperous and just when people use their Egos to benefit others (open a plastics factory that’s owned by the workers) – and would at least be far less shitty if people would stop expanding their own possibilities by limiting the possibilities of others (purchase and then gut the competing plastics factory).