What is Capitalism?

I have been working on essays about the economy for a while now, and this one will likely end abruptly whenever I run out of time to write. The idea of a gray area between work and leisure came from a book gifted to me by one of my sponsors that I found very helpful, How to Not Always Be Working by Marlee Grace. Writing is, for me, a gray area between work and leisure. There’s also a monster hiding beneath the words that is ravenous for me to feed it with emotional output through writing, which is kind of the main thing, and words like “work” and “leisure” are too simplistic to apply. As I focus on shifting my relationship with my blog, I want to make sure that I’m writing out of habit, not obligation for me.

Rather than talking in circles to avoid the topics that seem too big to blog about because I don’t have enough time, I want to blog more often and in smaller bites to get a conversation going. I’m aiming for a daily practice, one that can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to several hours, depending on what I have available in my day to dedicate to talking to all of you who mysteriously care to hear what I have to say. But as with any daily practice, it must remain flexible enough that on a day like yesterday, I don’t allow my perfectionism to destroy me. My own sanity and recovery from the trauma that demanded an impossible work ethic of me for the first 22 years of my life are worth more than not missing a single day of an extra task.

I haven’t begun to transition into a conversation about the benefits of capitalism yet, but the traces of it are littered throughout our entire perspectives and thought processes in the modern world. In an opening paragraph discussing life, I have mentioned work, nonwork, the gray area between, the existential crisis of duty, practice, habit development, discipline, self-care, work ethic, and prioritization. All of these concepts are in my present thinking influenced by my understanding of and beliefs surrounding money. Others may not value self-care but may be more willing to accept the terminology “work/life balance,” when the two are essentially the same idea, which is that productivity is not all we have to live for.

People who benefit from others’ productivity perceive loss in any resource that is unexploited. Exploitation is a neutral word for the capitalist, and a negative word for the anti-capitalist. When defining the verb “exploit,” Merriam-Webster puts “to make productive use of” before “to make use of meanly or unfairly for one’s own advantage.” Google’s definition of the word is “make full use of and derive benefit from (a resource).” This third definition manages neutrality between the more capitalistic emphasis on capitalism and the less capitalistic emphasis on unfairness. To the capitalist, exploit also fits its definition as a noun, “a bold or daring feat.” To the non-capitalist, exploit is not merely “mean,” or “unfair,” but akin to abuse and stealing.

Labor is a resource. Land in a resource, filled with resources. A person’s labor is being exploited, by definition, when it is productive, or when it produces a profit or benefit. Land is being exploited when it is bought and sold to turn a profit, and the many varied materials on land and in the sea is being exploited when it is extracted, killed, destroyed, or moved for profit. But even to use the term “resource” is to use capitalistic, colonized (colonization is a different but related conversation, but here’s a good overview) language to describe what is more than what can be synonymized with stocks, assets, materials, and lucrative things. This is what the capitalist sees in the world: opportunities to convert everything into profit. The Midas touch is the dream of the capitalist – because let’s face it, the ending of that story is still patriarchal, the guy only realized everything shouldn’t be made of gold when his own daughter, who he probably needed to marry off for profit, was probably worth more alive than her weight in gold. But I digress.

I’m starting with defining these terms clearly before I turn to tackling the definition of capitalism itself, much less its alternatives, because I recognize that we must break down the basics to have a thought-altering conversation. The blog is a wonderful medium for this because it is often read alone and in an emotionally uncompromised state – many blogs have changed my mind about concepts I thought I had the answers for. We can’t start off with the many derivatives and symptoms of capitalism, like a personal relationship with work and finances, because they are rooted in the one simple question that our modern globalized society revolves around: Does it make money?

My perspective is unique because I used to be a capitalist. I defended it with, I think, some of the best arguments in its favor. Now that we’ve talked about exploitation and productivity and profit, we can turn to how capitalism represents these things. I, along with many capitalists, believed that the other part of the definition of capitalism was more important than the one about profit: private property.

Capitalism is not so simple to define, and I want to offer and discuss multiple definitions so I’m not guilty of creating a strawman, though I am likely to be accused of doing so anyway. Our whole language around how we talk about money and economics is controlled by capitalistic thinking, so it is also difficult to talk about capitalism without falling prey to its controlling nature. Wikipedia says, “Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit.” Google says capitalism is “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.” Merriam-Webster defines it, “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.”

There are a few things to highlight here: first, there’s a definition by comparison and contrast. Capitalists are often clearer on what capitalism is not than what it is. It is not a government-regulated economy. That they’re certain about. Instead, the market is what they call “free.” The definition of freedom is too hefty a one to sidestep into here, but to non-capitalists, the term “free market” is a misnomer: what it really means is that nobody can keep the rich from stealing everything. Here, “free” means “without consequences,” and “market,” well, means purchase and sale and marketing. When defending themselves, capitalists emphasize the “free” instead of “market” in “free market,” and then defend capitalism as “freedom.” All of these grandiose and wordy definitions for capitalism are attempts to enshroud its true meaning, which is far simpler: Capitalism is, simply, the prioritization of profit.

When nothing stands between exploiters and what is being exploited, freedom quickly disappears for everyone who is not benefiting from that exploitation. Soon, as resources grow rarer for those being exploited, and more abundant for those doing the exploitation, the only freedoms being protected are those of the rich. This is factual – to see my research, see my original introduction to economic injustice that I published in 2018 – and well documented with evidence of the modern global economy: the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. This impacts every human on the planet in some way.

Capitalism is often misunderstood by its proponents. This is because it is not profitable to keep the general public informed about how deeply the profit motive runs our lives. But no matter how deeply you dig into the definition of capitalism, the result is always the prioritization of profit. There are many alternatives to the prioritization of profit, and they need not be contrasted with words that the capitalistic mindset has demonized, like “communism” and “socialism.” The capitalist plays with words to dilute the meaning of the prioritization of profit, then demands that anti-capitalists provide proof that anything could possibly be better than the rich bleeding the rest of us dry, when it should be obvious that bleeding the rest of us for profit shouldn’t be acceptable behavior in a truly free society.

Rather than allocating resources according to needs, capitalism demands that profit be valued over human life and wellbeing. Understanding what capitalism really is explains what is fundamentally wrong with the United States healthcare system, food distribution system, and access to stable housing. The ultimate end of capitalism says that if you cannot be productive, you do not deserve access to the benefits of the great wealth of the modern world. Furthermore, the net result of capitalism is that the resources and wealth are allocated to those who are not capable of being productive enough to directly produce the property they own. The roots of this go deeper: people who defend capitalism have an outdated scarcity mentality, one that imagines it is impossible to care for everyone who needs access to food, water, shelter, and medical care. This is also not factual – there are more empty homes, wasted food and water, and advanced medical technologies and personnel available than people who are homeless, hungry, thirsty, and ailing.

See, I have spent several hours on this and the day is drawing to a close, and I haven’t a conclusion. Only the plea that more people will recognize that we are being gleefully exploited by the 0.01%, and there is no excuse for it, except the idea that prioritizing profit is somehow good, that is, capitalism.