Capitalism: “It is what it is …”
Like it or not, we all live in a capitalist society, and THAT is hard to deny. The implications of this are multiple, and vary according to the class location of the individuals within the system. If you are Lisa T. Su, the CEO of Advance Micro Devices, your salary for 2020 would have been $58.5 million.
It would have been $40.3 million if you were NBA player Stephen Curry, and so on, until we get to the laundry and dry-cleaning workers who make $432 per week on average, or $22,464 per year, the lowest paid salary in the nation. Add to this the 16 million unemployed people (up from 10 million in February) and it’s easy to see that capitalism affects everybody but not on equal terms.
Capitalism, as we know, is ruled by the profit imperative and is unconcerned with equity or the redistribution of wealth. From an economic perspective, capitalism is anything but a democracy, yet all of us participate in it. We might then say that capitalism, while not at all democratic, is democratically distributed among all of us.
It took capitalism close to four hundred years to permeate the economies of most nations around the planet, alter some of the laws of nature, and also to infiltrate our minds. Capitalism’s expansion has ‘globalized’ the economy but also the way we think about the world. In the words of social critic Fredric Jameson, sometimes it seems “easier to imagine the end of the planet than the end of capitalism.”
Nonetheless, this inability to imagine the end of the system is just that, a temporary failure of our imagination. This does not mean that we necessarily have to agree with the reality created as demonstrated by the recent struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement against racism and government brutality. Nor with the massive resistance against the federal handling of the pandemic, which now registers close to six million Covid-19 cases and the deaths of two hundred thousand Americans.
The recent sharp increase in organized protest suggests that the problematic manner in which capitalism organizes the way we live, work (or don’t) and die in America, has come into focus again. The material circumstances of peoples’ lives in the US reveal the struggles and differences between the privileged and the dispossessed, the exploiters and the exploited, the rulers and the ruled.
Wrapped in the two-sided coat of racism and white supremacy, these social dichotomies characterize the lives of most American citizens. To borrow a phrase recently popularized in the oppositional voices of Donald Trump and Michelle Obama: “It is what it is . ..”. (Different as they are, neither Trump nor Obama has gone on record as being able to imagine the end of capitalism.)
Denial as a personal way of coping
The transition from acknowledging “it is what it is” to “it doesn’t have to be this way “ is not easy. Shifting from interpreting the world to changing it requires political fortitude, resilience, determination, endurance, and an imagination not trapped in the cultural sterility of mainstream society. Imagining a better world and fighting for it is difficult, often thankless, often seemingly futile work.
It’s no wonder that many of us choose, at least on occasion, to find solace in denying the conflicting forms in our existence. Our human unconscious acts as a basic instinctual drive that demands satisfaction in terms of security and permanence, not only in our personal lives, but also in our social and natural worlds.
Our mechanisms of defense lead our minds to negate a reality that we perceive as unpleasant. The following quote illustrates this dynamic at play in reference to climate change:
“… in this case, what I am saying, OK, what do I want to believe now? Do I want to worry about global warming — no, I don’t want to worry about global warming, me as an average person who doesn’t have … like a person who feels powerless in front of what big corporations are saying.
I am saying OK, I don’t want to bother with this, and I probably choose the point of view that entails me to believe that, OK, I can’t do much about global warming, so I take my thoughts away from this story” ( From a research paper submitted to Canadian Sociological Association by M. Sarbu, 2013)
The author also points out that these feelings of powerlessness can lead to “ a path of avoidance and disengagement,” even in cases when there is scientific recognition of global warming. In another study, The Truth About Denial: Bias and Self-Deception in Science, Politics, and Religion (2020), Alan Barton defines denial as the “emotionally motivated rejection (or embrace) of a factual claim in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.”
Denial, from a psychological perspective, provides us with a way to navigate through situations that we may experience as farcical, perverse, cruel or absurd, without changing those situations. Simultaneously, capitalism functions to enhance our own self-deception through the use of ideology and the apparatuses put in place for its dissemination.
Denial as a socially imposed mode of thinking
Ideology is not magical and it doesn’t exist in abstract. It lives in the practices of the dominant institutions in society, whose main purpose is to legitimize the current order and maintain maximum control with minimal conflict.
This is possible through specific forms of economic organization and financial institutions that make the existing division of labor between owners of the means of production and workers selling their labor “official,” and normal. Schools, churches, family, media, trade unions, political institutions, the legal system, political parties —all part of the ideological state apparatus (ISA)—help to maintain order in society and reproduce the existing capitalist relations of production. So too does the repressive state apparatus (RSA) including the army, police, national security organizations, and organized surveillance. These aspects may appear relatively autonomous, but they have one thing in common: they “materialize” the dominant ideology. That is, “the ideology of the dominant class, the class that holds state power and directly or imperiously commands the Repressive State Apparatus” (Althusser).
The convergence of these elements in the hands of capitalism conditions not only the actual conditions of our lives, but also the ways we think about our own and other people’s material conditions. For example, in the US, the very concept of capitalism is not taught explicitly as it is in other countries, often in the context of comparing the ways that societies organize themselves. Our current social and economic arrangements are presented without history, occluding the conditions that made possible their creation (i.e., slavery in the US), as if they exist according to “the natural order of things.”
Because we can’t see the root cause of social injustice, we end up limiting or even denying possibilities of genuine change. Capitalism would prefer that we limit ourselves to the role of perpetual consumers of commodities and apathetic spectators of our own lamentations. The ideology of capital has taught us how to lie to ourselves and how to cover our eyes and ears, or as Marx wrote:
“Perseus wore a magic cap so that the monsters he hunted down might not see him. We draw the magic cap down over our own eyes and ears so as to deny that there are any monsters”
Hope without denial
The Bernie Sanders movement; the growing number of progressive women elected to office; the vitality of the Black Lives Matter and movement with its ability to generate multi-ethnic and multi-class support against racism and police brutality; the growing popular discontent with the Trump administration; the increasing awareness among Americans of the importance of protecting the planet and the essential workers’ strikes at Amazon, Instacart, Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods, signal widespread public dissatisfaction.
In this moment, it seems that the “monsters” of American capitalism have been identified and Americans are finding hope not in the denial of capitalism and its effects, but in the struggle to overcome it. In this incredibly complicated moment, the magic cap has been lifted and we don’t know what will come next. Ironically, hope without denial is our best source of hope.
Enrique Quintero serves on the WIP Publishing Committee.