We need “Capitalism 101”

This is a call to all the parents and teachers and guardians and mentors out there: we can’t continue to raise generations of kids that have no idea how this economic and political system called capitalism functions, how it shapes our culture and our relationships with one another, how it impacts our sense of self and our understanding of right and wrong.

Growing up I can’t recall a single instance when someone actually sat me down and said, “look, you’re living in a capitalist society, and it’s about time you understood what that means.” I was never taught to name the system, let alone comprehend it, and I don’t think my parents were either. I was born into capitalism the way one is born into a religion: there are certain rules you must follow, and rituals you must perform, but you’re never encouraged to think about why those rules or rituals exist, where they came from, or who benefits from their existence. Instead all the emphasis is on the person following the rules and performing the rituals, on you as an individual and your behaviour; everything else is beyond your control, part of the “natural order”. This is personal empowerment (and responsibility) being used to hide collective disempowerment (and responsibility).

Meant to Be Free by Stephanie McMillan
Meant to Be Free by Stephanie McMillan

Even four years under the roof of a liberal arts university wasn’t enough to shake me out of my stupor. After all, what’s four years of classes on literature and theory against 18+ years of Disney, Batman, and The Price is Right. Sure I learned about racism and sexism and colonialism, but they were always represented to me as relics of the past, things we as human beings were slowly starting to overcome, not as things that were being actively produced and fostered, and certainly not as products of a political and economic system that puts wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. Karl Marx, perhaps the only theorist I encountered in school that dealt directly with economic concerns, was depicted as an outdated hack, whose theories and methods were overly rigid and totally irrelevant to the current situation.

marxIt’s striking to me now, looking back, that I went through so much of my life without ever thinking about capitalism directly, all the while accepting, subconsciously, the idea that capitalism was some sort of benevolent god, working through the “invisible hand” of the market, providing us with all of our modern goods and services, all our comforts and progressive values. Sure there were problems, but these were just the natural outcomes of human imperfections, or government intervention, or something like that, right?

It was only when I learned to name the system that I also learned to see, not only the extent of the problems, but the myriad of ways in which they were interconnected. I began to see (or rather was shown) the limits of the bubble I’d been living in, and how different things looked when I pushed on the edges of that bubble. Rather than viewing capitalism as natural, normal, and eternal, I began to see it as constructed, unsustainable, and in many ways, absurd.

How is it absurd, you ask? Well, let me count the ways.

1) High levels of economic growth and record-breaking profits exist alongside rising poverty levels, even in the richest countries.

2) We have an untold number of urgent problems that need to be resolved, including a looming environmental crisis that threatens the entire globe, and yet people everywhere are struggling to find work or are languishing in jobs that serve no useful purpose outside of the drive for profit.


3) Countries with millions of unoccupied homes, also have problems with homelessness.

4) When new labour-saving inventions are introduced, they won’t be implemented until rising wages make it profitable to do so (i.e. machines become cheaper than people). When automation does happen, the workers are forced to fight against it, or risk losing their jobs. Instead of technology reducing the amount of time we all need to work to meet our needs, and improving our collective well-being, it actually hurts workers, who then have to compete to find new jobs, and/or accept less pay for their work.

Automated by Steph McMillan
Automated by Steph McMillan

5) Despite dwindling natural resources, our societies are producing massive amounts of waste. (For a specific example of the kind of waste produced by “free enterprise,” check out this story about Goldman Sach’s merry-go-round of metal.)

There are many more things I could list, including the surveillance state, the militarization of the police, and perpetual war, but you get the idea. Whether you’re totally on board with all of these claims, don’t believe a word of it, or agree with some of it but still think capitalism is worth saving, it’s worth reflecting on why you think this is the case. These, I would argue, are some of the symptoms of capitalism, but how well do you really understand its inner workings or its development over time? What about alternatives to capitalism? Do you feel a sense of revulsion, fear, and/or disdain when confronted with words like communism and anarchism, and if so, why? Do you think you could explain their theoretical foundations and history to somebody if they asked?

Commodity Breakdown by Stephanie McMillan. For a step by step explanation click on the image use Next to see each of the figures.

Though these questions have interested me for a while now, I still have a lot to learn, and sorting through the bullshit and misinformation can be time-consuming. A general climate of anti-intellectualism hasn’t helped, and while there are good reasons to be suspicious of the role academia has played in justifying the positions and mandates of the global elite, as a whole anti-intellectualism only makes us more susceptible to being misled and manipulated. One of the most telling flaws (though some might call it their strength) in right-wing rhetoric is the utter inability to explain, on a real, material, and fundamental level, how capitalism actually works, let alone other systems of social and economic organization. Instead you’ll hear vague (and often contradictory) appeals to freedom, individual rights, and innovation, with very little evidence or analysis–but then they don’t need it, because this vision of capitalism is so pervasive that we (meaning those occupying the more privileged corners of the West) don’t even notice it’s there most of the time. Some of us don’t want to notice, because we’re personally invested in the system, and are afraid to confront it. In this case anti-intellectualism can be very convenient, since it allows us to deflect criticism from “pompous” intellectuals while ignoring any research that happens to contradict our beliefs or undermine our interests.


There are some inklings that things are starting to change, however. Thanks in part to movements like Occupy and 15 Now, both of which emerged as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, the critique of capitalism is no longer taboo. People everywhere are feeling the strain, or devastation, of austerity measures, and the proverbial cake is beginning to crumble. Even in economics, which has played an important role in legitimizing capitalism, students are starting to demand an alternative approach that pushes beyond the dogma that has pervaded their discipline for so long.

But there is still a massive need for educational initiatives that address the very heart of the existing world system, the always-present but rarely acknowledged elephant in the room. Whatever our political leanings, we need to get to know this elephant called capitalism, and understand how it affects our day-to-day lives, before we find ourselves on the wrong side of history. We need to know what it is we’re standing up for, or what we’ve chosen to fight, and we need to help others do the same.

With that in mind, here is a list of resources that I’ve found helpful (also check out the links scattered throughout the post). Please feel free to suggest more if you have them!

RSA Animate – Crises of Capitalism with David Harvey

The Contradictions of Capitalism a talk and Q&A David Harvey

Marx’s Capital by Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho

Capitalism Must Die! by Stephanie McMillan. This is where half of the illustrations in this post came from, but the descriptions she includes on her website are also very helpful.

Slavery and the Origins of Racism by Lance Selfa