When most people think of capitalism, they think of Mom & Pop stores in their town, and the opportunity that all their neighbors have to thrive and make an honest living selling what they make or what service they provide. This idyllic scenario can also be called, simply, trading. I have something you need, and you (or someone else) have services or things that I need. Let’s exchange.
Modern capitalism, of course, is not mere trading. Corporations are designed to give their owners zero liability. That is, you can’t sue me if our product harms you; you’ll have to sue the company instead. These legal entities quickly outgrow their original “mom and pop” owners, who may have nothing to do with them eventually. As legal “persons,” corporations can now get away with doing just about anything that a person can do except vote in its own right, although tons of money works just as well in that regard, if not better. And unlike Mom & Pop stores, corporate shares can be publicly traded on Wall Street, where “investors” (bettors) try to buy low and sell high, whether the company is any good at what it does or not. Corporations, over time, have come to play to these high-dollar gamblers as their primary concern, leaving other considerations such as employee compensation, consumer well being, and environmental well being in the dust.
As Apple undoubtedly understands all too well, one can saturate the market with iPhones. The market is finite. Eventually, your widget sales are going to decline, and then the gamblers on Wall Street will be unhappy. Whatever can be done to squeeze more money out of people?
It is one thing to trade in simple material goods or services, but it is quite another to attempt to monetize things that serve no inherent purpose or public good. Nevertheless, that is what our predatory capitalist system does: corporations attach themselves, leech-like, to other corporations and vulnerable people in order to extract more and more wealth, like the villains in a runaway Dickens novel.
Let’s take private equity firms, such as Mitt Romney’s BAIN Capital. Here is an “industry” that takes rich peoples’ money and buys a large, successful corporation, such as Toys R Us. These ingenious firms then turn around and have the company take out massive loans. Being impatient investors, the private equity firm pays itself a return on the investment, and voilà! They can move on to their next victim. The company they bought, however, still has to struggle with the debt it incurred and probably can’t handle, resulting in eventual bankruptcy and a general screwing over of the workforce, who no longer stand any chance of seeing their retirement benefits or anything else. Private equity firms are like the hunter who shoots the stag, cuts off its antlers, and leaves the meat to rot while the rest of the herd weeps over the remains.
But wait! Some companies don’t need to create misery to profit from it. Colony Starwood Homes, which was partly owned at one time by Trump buddy Thomas J. Barrack, is one of the many companies who profited from the average American’s recession misery. It was bad enough that private banks (who work very hard to make sure there are few public ones) wouldn’t help people struggling to avoid foreclosure on their homes (and sometimes breaking the law in the process). Companies like Colony swooped in to buy foreclosed homes at bargain-basement prices so that they could rent them out to the same people who lost them in the first place. Which doesn’t sound so bad, until you read the reports of shoddy maintenance, unsafe living conditions, and general slumlord conditions that would not be out of place in Oliver Twist. Oh, and Colony Starwood Homes also moves to evict about one-third of its tenants. Gotta keep that money churning!
Speaking of human misery, Americans are really good at creating industries to exploit it. The payday-lender industry, with its obscenely usurious interest rates (400%, anyone?) manages to avoid regulation by handing out copious contributions to the folks on capitol hill (here’s looking at you, Kevin Yoder, R-KS and Richard Shelby, R-AL). And of course, the only people who would use this questionable “service” are those who can least afford it.
Corporate capitalists never met a public service they couldn’t twist into profitability. Why should the government run prisons when the government could pay a company to run it for them? Never mind that the food quality, living conditions, and healthcare may degrade to the point of gulag territory. One must be profitable because shareholders! And if you’re making money by housing people, obviously you want as many people in there as possible, right? Which creates the perverse monetary incentive to ... cage people. And boy, do we. We will quickly pop you into a cage for doing very little. Steal a hamburger? Smoke a joint? There’s an orange uniform for that. And if we can’t create enough criminals, well, refugees from a foreign country will do.
Speaking of things that should never be profit-driven, have you wondered why people can’t afford insulin these days? Or why there’s no cure for cancer? I once read that in ancient China, wealthy people kept a doctor in residence. They paid this doctor as long as family members were in good health. But if one of them became sick, they stopped paying the doctor until they were well again. This is what you call a positive incentive, to keep people well. Our system does the opposite. It only generates money when you’re sick. And if you’re sick and the other option is death, then they’re going to soak you for everything you’ve got. That’s predatory capitalism, culling the herd and producing bankruptcy notices on a daily basis.
If you’ve wondered why so many politicians and corporate types are determined to replace our public education system with “vouchers,” it’s because they want to monetize that, too. They don’t care if some kids go uneducated. They just want to make people pay for a service that (at least, until now) is free. Which is also why there’s so much resistance to a Green New Deal, because they can’t charge you for using the sun or the wind or whatever Tesla discovered that they sabotaged.
Ultimately, this Darwinistic “every man for himself” attitude that so profoundly marks our capitalist system means that we live in a society in which the common good is not considered, or is even considered irrelevant. The needs of people, wildlife, and the environment all come last in a world where the only thing that matters is how much money you can make from something. This perspective destroys worlds rather than creating them. It destroys life instead of nurturing it. It destroys hope and opportunity for good people, while rewarding the worst tendencies of sociopaths. It is an unsustainable system that could spell the end of humanity if we allow it to continue.
We could choose a different path and a different way of thinking, however. Instead of seeing scarcity, we could see abundance. We could value each other instead of material goods. We could embrace community and dispel loneliness. We could share the world, as one tribe. We could return to simply trading and simply living, rather than eyeing one another as a potential profit center. As always, it’s a choice we can make. What will we choose?