One aspect of a culture infected by capitalism is a general feeling that business and profits must always come first — even over human life, although not everyone is quite aware that this is the inevitable conclusion such a capitalist ideology eventually leads to. This “profits-first” attitude is very evident in many debates but probably most commonly comes up whenever a minimum wage is discussed.
Hands down, the first complaint often heard when a minimum wage raise is discussed is that will “hurt businesses”. Some use this to outright reject an increased minimum (e.g., Republicans), and some use this to argue for incremental change, very slow increases over time to not “shock” business (e.g., Democrats). The Republican view is that minimums get in the way and hurt the market from deciding what’s best, and so would prefer to get rid of it, or at least keep it as low as possible. Democrats will acknowledge that workers should get some sort of minimum, but they’re careful to state that the minimum should not be so much that it hurts business, and should be phased in over time so businesses can “adapt”.
Note that in both scenarios, the main concern is with business. Can the business afford its rent and bills, can the business make enough profit for its owner. Meanwhile, in both scenarios, folks that are starving, having trouble paying the rent, transportation, child care, etc., are still in poverty.
In the Republican case, there’s this extremely idealistic expectation that the market will “sort things out” — and, eventually, when the market magic finishes working, people will be much better off. Of course, they can never give a firm date on when that happens or what it looks like (will the workers be billionaires once the market works? or just plain millionaires??), just that it will be amazing. Maybe some honestly have this idealistic belief, but many simply use it to cover for the fact that they know the goal of the game. The capitalist game isn’t to distribute the wealth — it’s to find new ways to hoard even more of the profits for the people at the top. When we cut regulations and refuse minimum wage increases within this system — nothing else changing — it inevitably leads to more poverty as more money goes to profits not worker wages. Particularly for service jobs that are looked down upon heavily as not “deserving” a good wage because of the non-technical nature of the work. There’s no incentive for an owner to give away the profits they already own in this system unless there’s some kind of tax benefit — or criminal court proceedings — against them if they don’t, so 99% of the time, workers get poorer. And even when that incentive exists, they only take it to make even more money and grow overall inequality in the country even more.
The Democratic case is actually not much better, and in some sense is even more insidious because it pretends to be on the side of the workers. Here, the argument is that small raises, say 50 cents a year over 5 or 6 years, will eventually build up to be the the wages that people deserve. But there’s a few major flaws in this reasoning. Firstly, if people need to make higher wages today, and you’re not giving them that whole amount today, then they’re still in poverty. As the comedian Lewis Black said in one of his specials, “All [that raise] does is remind you how f%@$ed you are.” But aside from that, another interesting thing is going on here, namely that the owner isn’t to be “shocked” with a suddenly high bill. Utility rates often increase yearly, sometimes significantly — water bill, electric bill, gas bill, cell phone bill if you go over your minutes! — so a “successful business” ought to be prepared to have increased costs and rates, but when it comes to increases in labor costs, they never seem prepared. What’s embedded in this argument is that the owner is entitled to their expected level of profits, and so by slowly raising the wage, owners can slowly raise prices for their products and services and offset it. In other words, while maintaining the owner’s expected amount of profits and income. Ironically, there’s a focus on making sure that the owner has a “living wage” (really, the wage they simply expect to have, not necessarily any sort of fair market wage, again ironically) and doesn’t have to pay too much extra in “bills” (that is, wages to workers). The comfort of the owner to receive the profits they expect is put above the needs of the workers to actually be able to afford their bills. Why does the worker not get equal treatment here? Furthermore, the slow increase in wages and prices allows normal yearly inflation to eat into the workers’ gains — it might still be a net gain, but not near as much as it sounds like, and potentially years too late to make as much a difference.
In both cases, the comfort and expectations of the very small number of owners and investors is put above the ability to end poverty for the workers. No one is saying that the owner wouldn’t even make profits, just that they might get a little less for a short time to ensure all the workers are lifted out of poverty. But suggest this, and politicians and those business owners will completely freak out.
Instead, workers are expected to simply deal with it. Workers are expected to figure out how to stay in poverty for a bit longer to maybe get some relief years down the line. Which of course doesn’t usually ever come, and even when it does, is only a brief respite that goes right back to poverty because the underlying issues were never fixed.
In southwest Pennsylvania, we’re seeing another form of this: as fracking, petrochemicals, and fossil fuels set their sites on the region, we see concerns about the impact on our clean water and air, on toxic pollution causing cancer in our children, and the acceleration of the climate crisis all batted away with false concerns like “hey, you want jobs don’t you?”.
This is exactly the same sort of argument as the minimum wage problem. We’re told by political leaders effectively that we must simply deal with it. If we don’t accept an industry that causes ecological crises and gives our children cancer, we might fall into poverty and not have jobs! We’re forced, under duress!, to sign away the future of our children and maybe our planet to get some sort term jobs for a few people — much like the minimum wage supposedly needs to be “phased in” to protect the owners without regard to the majority of workers left in poverty.
All of these arguments are designed to do two things.
One, protect the profits of the corporations and business owners. In all of these arguments, the fundamental question asking whether business owners deserve to be hoarding wealth from the workers’ labor in the first place never comes up. As such, it is kept safe by turning attention toward some other topic. Which leads to the second point — it automatically starts setting up a divide and playing workers off of one another. Those that demand higher wages or propose jobs outside of fossil fuels are accused of hurting jobs and “the economy”. A demand to end poverty and protect our environment is now made into the villain, and a barrage of “economic statistics” is used to gaslight activists until they give up the argument. However, this is all by design — gaslighting is an attempt at convincing someone who is speaking truth to stop speaking by alienating them, making them feel alone and question if they are correct.
Politicians and the corporate media are experts at gaslighting. Corporations fund their own studies and surveys — with carefully worded questions, etc. — which politicians then cite to claim they are “right” and “represent the people/workers/whatever”. They shove corporate-backed experts and professionals at us to make us think we’re wrong. Democrats also like to pretend they represent labor by bringing in labor union leaders — however, many big unions long-ago were effectively “bought” by the party, and union leaders often represent the party establishment more so than the rank-and-file workers. In 2016 for example, one of the largest teachers’ unions announced an endorsement for Hillary Clinton, because that was who leadership supported, despite members unifying behind Bernie Sanders. Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto tried to pull a similar gaslighting operation by accusing me of dividing workers and environmental activists when I brought up his lack of support for a Green New Deal — which is utterly ridiculous because the whole point of the Green New Deal is to unify labor with environmental action. We can create jobs without ruining our environment, a point that the political and capitalist classes married to fossil fuel profits are all too eager to skip over.
But the thing is: we’re the side that doesn’t want children to die of fracking-related cancer. We’re the side that doesn’t want an uninhabitable planet. How is that in the wrong?
Do you see how nonsensical this is? All of these experts, statistics, money thrown around, and all they’ve really done at the end of the day is try to make you forget that children and the planet are dying. They’re not proposing alternatives — they’re only trying to make you give up and accept what is happening to your community and the planet. They’re gaslighting you.
And they’re gaslighting you because capitalism’s profits rely on you accepting a narrative that you do not deserve better. That the needs of the wealthy, of investors, of business owners, comes before making sure your children have food, shelter, and don’t get cancer from nearby industry. They don’t want you to realize that Pennsylvania paid over $1.6 BILLION to Shell to build the “cracker plant” plastics factory, just to “create” 600 permanent jobs. When you do out the math, Pennsylvania created those jobs by paying directly for them with tax subsidies. Shell keeps all the resulting profits for itself. And Shell will leave us residents with cancer and the bill to clean up the massive environment damage that will be left behind if we don’t act to shut it down and hold Shell — and political leaders that enabled it — responsible.
A Green New Deal actually brings us to fundamentally question the assumptions of this system. Why do we put investor profits before ending poverty? Why do we pay corporations money to “create jobs” when we could actually directly invest in our communities and create our own jobs? Why do we keep “investing” in fossil fuels that destroy our health and the planet, instead of other more green industry?
Those are not questions they’re prepared to answer, because the implications are deep. So instead, they will accuse us of being “unrealistic”, of trying to divide labor, of trying to get Trump re-elected — anything they can to keep the cycle going and prevent us from questioning capitalism itself. Our job is to support each other, and not give in. Our job is to understand capitalism and the cultural system it has created to protect itself — if we better understand how the system works, we can be better informed on how to best take action to produce systemic change. Understanding capitalism will be the topic of the next few posts, to form a new series of articles where I intend to further explore social ecology and Green philosophy.