Trigger warning: there is some graphic language about the violence of slavery and the treatment of Indigenous people.
The bedrock of the American economy is the belief that everyone can be rich if we just work hard enough. For example, if you’re poor, you must be doing something wrong. Are you too lazy to get a better job? (See also: health care.)
Why? Because. . . slavery.
Not Just the South
As Matthew Desmond writes in the 1619 Project, American capitalism is based on the plantation economy. His essay is titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” In it, he details the unholy alliance between enslavers, creditors, northern textile factories and the US government. This alliance developed the US cotton market, on the backs of indigenous people whose land and culture were stolen and enslaved Black people who were brutalized, all in the name of profit.
How did these people live with themselves? How did they sleep at night, knowing that they’d exploited millions of people for their own gain? Where was their conscience?
That’s where American capitalism collides head-on with humanity. If we can deny the humanity of people, then we can do whatever we want to them. Kidnap them, ship them across oceans in horrid conditions, sell them like livestock, torture, rape and kill them. We can spread disease and violence across thousands of miles, uproot people from their ancestral homes and rip children from their families.
Aren’t We Done With Slavery Though?
This capitalist denial of humanity is the root of oppression in the United States. It continues today in the form of police murder of people of color, denial of health care, the school-to-prison pipeline, the emotional labor we expect from people of color, dangerous border camps and so much more.
To believe in brutal American capitalism is to deny the humanity of people. For example, if we truly respected the humanity of immigrants, we could never force them into dangerous limbo in tent camps in Mexico. If we truly respected the humanity of Black people, the police wouldn’t shoot first and ask questions later (if they ask questions at all). If we respected the humanity of Indigenous people, thousands of Indigenous women wouldn’t go missing every year. (Talking about women, if we respected the humanity of women, there would be no rape.) Here’s one I bet you didn’t expect: If we believed in the humanity of rural, conservative people, we wouldn’t categorically dismiss them as ignorant and write them off.
Capitalism with Guardrails
Our capitalism needs guardrails precisely because we don’t respect fundamental humanity.
As Representative Katie Porter says, “Capitalism needs guardrails to work.”
(Hint: a federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour and laws that permit employers to fire workers for organizing a union are not guardrails.)
I suspect that if you read this far, you were hoping for some neat resolution. For a happy ending where there’s an intersection between American capitalism and humanity.
But there isn’t. The two are incompatible.
If we believe in the humanity of all people, we couldn’t possibly exploit them enough to maintain our capitalism without guardrails. Guardrails can look like unions, restrictions on the greed of giant corporations, a living wage, universal health care, student loan forgiveness, an end to subsidies for planet-killing industries and more.
I prefer to deny American capitalism (which is a difficult position for a small business owner). I don’t really know what the alternative is, but I know that when workers and working families have power, things get better.
So let’s get busy building guardrails and building power.