The often-ignored drawbacks of our economic system
Capitalism is revolutionary, and, like any good revolution, it leaves no aspect of society untouched. It even transforms those facets of life which are fundamental to humanity’s experience of the world, such as religion, marriage, and the family, by compelling them to serve capitalism itself.
Capitalism is a solvent: nearly anything, good or bad, that stands in the way of increased profits will be removed, and those who attempt to resist this race to the bottom will find themselves outcompeted. As the quest for higher profits becomes the goal of capital, it undermines traditional institutions and ideas of human dignity. For example, someone who does not give his employees Sundays and feast days off has an advantage over those who do. A software executive who outsources production of electronic goods to Chinese factories where his workers labor in hazardous conditions for less than a living wage will have an advantage on the man who does not. And so, previously held notions—notions that people ought not to work on Sundays or that working in horrific conditions for low pay violates human dignity, along with the sense that doing so is something frowned upon by the divine—fall by the wayside.
Consider also how capital benefits from the replacement of the single-income household with the two-income household, a change in the makeup of the workforce which is often enabled by abortion and birth control. Any economist will tell you that an increase in the supply of labor, all else being equal, drives the price of labor down, and capital has an interest in paying labor the lowest possible amount.
This leads to what is known as the “two-income trap.” When the second parent joins the workforce, the family loses an adult who can help the family when issues like a medical emergency arise. The second parent’s joining the workforce leads to new expenses, such as a second car, daycare for the kids, and eating out more often, which drain a large portion of the second parent’s income. Also, the addition of a second income leaves more money available to bid for the tokens of middle-class life, driving up the prices of those luxuries. And since families now need the second income, there is no going back to the way things were.
Daycare, in particular, reveals capitalism’s logic. Daycare, as we understand it, is a relatively recent development in human history, and the two-income trap has made it ever more important. As the nuclear family—another recent idea—lost its connections to broader networks of family, neighbors, and friends around it, it became necessary to pay for a service that has been performed by the family for most of human history. And no matter how well daycare workers do their jobs, they do not possess the connection and special care that only a child’s family can have. And so a connection of love and communal responsibility is replaced with one based in the exchange of money.
In this way, capitalism has destroyed the model of the family that existed for much of human history and replaced it with something new. It is difficult to imagine that the family benefits from replacing time children spend with their parents with time spent in daycares, but it is very easy to see how capital benefits from a larger labor supply and increased spending.
The data bears this out: according to the Economic Policy Institute, since 1973, the economy’s productivity has almost doubled while household median income has flatlined. A cultural revolution has happened, and it benefitted capital while harming the family.
Capital’s acceptance of another revolution was on display during and after the Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v. Hodges. Splashed across the pages of mainstream news sources were headlines like, “Here are the 379 Companies Urging the Supreme Court to Support Gay Marriage” and “46 Beautiful Rainbow Brand Logos Celebrating Marriage Equality.” Large corporations do not do such things because they have deep-seated feelings about the validity of gay marriage. Nor do they do it because they think that they have a moral obligation to do so. They do it because it makes good business sense to appeal to popular opinion. It is difficult enough to resist cultural shifts of this kind as it is: it is even more difficult when capital, with all its money, power, and influence, works to promote them.
The power of capital runs to revolutionary ends. It commodifies what it can and spits out what it cannot. And so we should be skeptical of it and fear it, as if it were a wild animal—for, even if we may have made it serve us, there is no guarantee we and what we love will not end up on the wrong side of its claws.
Steven Larkin is a sophomore from Maine majoring in mathematics and classics. The only thing he loves more than scratching out his opinions is poutine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.