American Capitalism vs. Humanity

image in the style of a Tarot card. Grey top hat with a dollar sign and red band. Roman number III and a lightning bolt at the top with grey clouds framing the corners. Raindrops fall around the hat. Stacks of golden coins and the words The Capitalism along the bottom.
Image credit: @teenvogue

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.

July at OTW: Two Years In

image in the style of a Tarot card. Grey top hat with a dollar sign and red band. Roman number III and a lightning bolt at the top with grey clouds framing the corners. Raindrops fall around the hat. Stacks of golden coins and the words The Capitalism along the bottom.
Image credit: @teenvogue

When I started Organizing to Win two years ago, I didn’t have big dreams of being my own boss. I didn’t care about being a small business owner. There were no visions of entrepreneurship dancing in my head.

I was just frustrated. I had spent the previous year applying for jobs, interviewing, networking, writing resumes and cover letters. Nothing fit. Then, after one particularly weird (not bad, just weird) interview experience, it all clicked.

I left that interview thinking (1) I don’t want that job and (2) why am I killing myself to fit in places I don’t fit? I want to help bring people together to build power. Whether I do that as an employee of one organization or as a consultant to lots of organizations, doesn’t really matter.

The Business that Became Organizing to Win was Born.

Since then, I’ve had some amazing opportunities, like training a cadre of women political leaders in St. Louis, parent leaders in California and education justice organizers across the country. I was also fortunate to provide organizing and training strategy support to environmental justice organizers in Georgia, elect fun and inspiring candidates and help change the conversation about gun violence in our country.

I’ve discovered two main challenges in building this business. First, women are taught not to speak up about our accomplishments or skills. We’re not supposed to bring attention to what we do and we’re definitely not supposed to talk about ourselves. Apparently, I have internalized those rules really well.

These days, I completely break all those internalized rules to post to social media about my work, write about victories and display my expertise in blog posts and LinkedIn. (Not to mention here, in this newsletter!) 😨

(BTW, you can help with this challenge – follow me on social media with the buttons in the footer, and invite a friend to subscribe to this newsletter!)

Next, the last job I had at a for-profit enterprise was in 1991. Everything since then has been nonprofit organizations, unions and political campaigns.

Now, I have to be a salesperson, marketer and, most disconcerting of all, a capitalist. It’s an odd position for someone who fancies herself a union organizer* and anti-racist.

I’ve learned a lot, met some amazing people and I’m proud of the work I’ve done so far.

What’s Next?

I look forward to what comes next. There are a few new projects waiting in the wings but I don’t want to jinx it by telling you before they’re ready!Thanks for your support. If we haven’t connected in a while, let’s chat! Use the contact form to get in touch.

*I can’t count how many discussions I had with union members about why asking co-workers to join the union or the political action fund wasn’t “selling” or “marketing.”