There are places where you can come over a bridge and see a whole big city spread out before you. The Mystic River Bridge coming into Boston is such a place, as is the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan or the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. Driving over one of these bridges you can see the dozens of skyscrapers, hundreds of office buildings and factories, thousands of stores and shops, tens of thousands of people bustling along, traffic everywhere, and ships in the harbor. And you think to yourself, How could we ever presume to change all this? It is so vast. Countless activities. Millions of people going to work everyday. Goods being shipped. Phones ringing.
And yet this whole enormous edifice is built on one tiny single social relation: wage slavery (the extraction of wealth by force from the direct producers by the accumulators of capital). The government bureaucracies, police, lawyers, schools, and courts are all there to enforce this social relation. But hardly anyone knows this anymore. This fact has been carefully hidden in dozens of ways. The knowledge that this wealth is extracted by force has long been lost, even though brute force is used all over the world on a daily basis to defend this relation, and even though millions of us face unemployment (and hence destitution) not so infrequently. The knowledge that we are slaves being bought by the hour rather than the lifetime has also been lost. We have been wage slaves for so long that we have forgotten there is any other way to live. We have forgotten that once we had land and tools and could live independently, providing for ourselves, without being forced to sell our labor power for wages.
So this is the first and most important awareness we can come to: we should not be living as slaves but as free people. Seen in this light, capitalism does not seem so invincible but actually rather vulnerable. If we could only sever this single relation, we could destroy capitalism and free ourselves to create a new social world. This is undoubtedly why capitalists go to such lengths to camouflage, mystify, and deny the wage slave relation. It is their Achilles’ heel.
A second awareness is more easily achieved. If we take a stroll around one of these cities, noticing the kinds of buildings that exist, we will come up with something like this list: banks, factories, department stores, warehouses, office buildings, shops, churches, houses, apartment buildings, museums, schools, an occasional union hall, sports arenas, theaters, restaurants, convention centers, garages, airports, train stations, bus depots, nightclubs, hospitals, nursing homes, gyms, malls, hotels, courthouses, police stations, and post offices. What we will rarely see is a meeting hall. If we happen to live in a capital city, we will be able to find a single chamber where the politicians meet. Worshipers congregate in churches, of course. Unionists hold meetings sometimes in their union halls, businesspeople convene in downtown centers, spectators aggregate in theaters and arenas to watch games, movies, plays, ballets, and concerts, and students gather for lectures, sometimes in large auditoriums. But there are usually no meeting halls, as such, for citizens, where we can assemble to make decisions and govern our own lives. So how can it be said that we live in a democracy, if we don’t even assemble or have any facilities for doing so? Not only should we not live as slaves, but we should also not live in an undemocratic society. Rather, we should live in a real democracy, where we can govern our own communities.
Beyond these two basic awarenesses, there is the recognition of the linkages between our many miseries and the wage slave system. This knowledge is more difficult to acquire, mainly because capitalists, and their public relations people, take such pains to blame the sufferings of the world on anything and everything other than their own practices. If there is starvation in Bangladesh, it’s because there are too many people and not because agricultural self-sufficiency has been destroyed by capitalist world markets. If the oceans are dying from oil tanker flushes, this is a shame, but it’s really no one’s fault; it’s just the price we must pay for progress and civilization. If millions are living in abject poverty in the shantytowns of third world cities, there is nothing unusual about this; it’s just part of the worldwide Aprocess of urbanization -- they never mention that governments and corporations have seized the peasants’ lands, forcing them to leave their homes. If cities are filling up with the homeless, it’s because these people are lazy and won’t look for work, and not because there aren't enough jobs for everyone and rents are sky-high. The list of such subterfuges is endless.
The truth is that most of the suffering in the world now is directly attributable to capitalists. If it were not for capitalists, most of the illness in the world could be eliminated, as well as most of the hunger, ignorance, homelessness, environmental destruction, congestion, warfare, crime, insecurity, waste, boredom, loneliness, and so forth. Even much of the suffering caused by hurricanes, floods, droughts, and earthquakes can be laid at the feet of capitalists because capitalists prevent us from preparing for and responding to these disasters as a community, in an intelligent way. And recently, capitalists are to blame for the increased severity of some of these events due to global warming, which capitalists have caused. Unless you’re already convinced, I know you’re not going to believe these bald claims. But others have documented the linkages between these various evils and the profit system, if you wish to study their works.
I have my own personal hate list. I hate advertisements, seriously. Nothing could be sweeter to me than living in an advertisement‑free world. I hate congested cities, being stuck in traffic jams, not being able to park, being ticketed unfairly, having to suffer the rudeness of Boston drivers. I hate car alarms, a perfect example of a totally unnecessary aggravation but for the insanity of capitalism. (To see the connection between the scourge of car alarms and capitalism will be a test of your newfound awareness of the linkages.) I hate insurance companies, the biggest racketeers in the United States (not counting the Savings and Loans crooks, of course). I hate the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority. I hate telemarketing. I hate call waiting. I hate weather forecasters; they are alarmists, and not one of them seems to like rain (if their on-air attitudes are anything to go by). I hate cops; and they are everywhere now, even at the movies, or in workplaces, department stores, parks, schools, and libraries. I hate bosses. I never had one who was a decent human being (at least not at work); they were always twisted in some way, mean, self-centered, or arrogant, or else incompetent, bluffing through it while pretending not to, with no one daring to say otherwise. I hate the terrible insecurity of not having a reliable income.
I hate this precarious existence. I hate looking for a job, big time. This is when you realize what a bind they’ve got you in. No way to live without a job; so hustle, make the rounds, update the résumé, get the interviews, all for free (i.e., job hunting is unpaid labor that benefits corporations). Your money is running out or already gone, and there’s no one to help. You’re desperate to find someone to buy your poor self by the hour. You desperately seek slavery in order to go on living. This is what I hate. And then, once a buyer is found, the boredom, drudgery, and fatigue starts all over again, and you see your life slipping away, all used up by businessmen, and all for nothing. I hate living alone, with my crippled emotions and aborted love life. I hate television with a passion, and have ever since the first set appeared in my parents’ home in 1951. I hate seeing the earth, such a beautiful place, go down the tubes, just so some greedy fools can make a profit. I hate not being around small children, they being the loveliest creatures to grace our lives (most of them). I hate social scientists; nothing has done more to make the world unintelligible than their decades of jargon and gibberish. I hate standing in line at banks (and I hate banks). It’s bad enough that I’m paying them to use my money to make themselves a profit; it’s the standing in line to do it that rankles. I hate automobiles, in too many ways to even count. I hate nondairy creamer. I hate seat belts, the thousandth way they have found to blame the victim. I hate Smokey the Bear. I hate lawns. I haven’t even begun to list all the things I hate about our present disorder.
I suppose, to be fair, I should now list all the things I love, in order to balance the picture, but it wouldn’t be in character.
This is an excerpt from "Getting Free" by James Herod. To read the next chapter on 'how we might want to live' see the full book.