Surviving Capitalism: A Primer on What School Doesn’t Teach You
I’ve been silent for a while after graduating in 2019. I thought that I would become firm in my values and identity in undergrad, however now that I am 3 years post-graduation, I realize that my growth was only beginning. There are identity structures that fell away, and others that are beginning to take their place. Some of these could only come to fruition through leaving the bubble that is the Western education system into the world of unknowns.
While there are many I want to discuss eventually (including the disillusionment I’ve grown about many therapy modalities such as CBT, coming to terms with childhood trauma and how it shaped my future relationships and led to more trauma), I want to reflect on capitalism specifically with you today. Capitalism is important for any youth/young adult to consider and be aware about, as it underpins the way that society currently operates and therefore we are all impacted by it.
I know I am not alone in feeling the whiplash entering the workforce as a fresh grad out of university. This is by capitalism’s design, as we begin our indoctrination into its values and beliefs from the educational system. I’ll begin spelling out some important concepts in Part 1 with the huge caveat that I am not an expert in social justice issues, just someone trying to re-learn the world and become a better ally and advocate. In later posts I’d like to continue my reflections, including how this system impacted my mental health and those of my peers.
Photo by Edward Howell
*Note: This post contains affiliate links. Please see my full disclosure here.
The violence of capitalism
Capitalism is a political and economic system where private individuals and businesses control trade and industry, rather than the state.
Under this system, a person becomes rich by selling stuff, or ‘commodities’, which come about from a combination of raw materials and labour.
A key component of capitalism is the goal of profit. To maximize profit, private actors are incentivized to exploit the environment (raw materials) and people (labour) as cheaply as possible. The latter essentially means stealing as much value for your work as they can by underpaying you as much as possible for your labour. Ever heard the phrase, “there are no ethical billionaires”? I 100% adhere to this statement. In the words of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “There is no human who “earns” a billion dollars. They “take” a billion dollars”.
This system leads to the outcomes that we see today, where less than 1% of human beings own most of the world’s wealth and resources, while a significant number of humans struggle to have basic needs met. Where large corporations enjoy heavy tax breaks during a pandemic while Ontario’s folks who have no capacity to work due to disability continue to receive less-than-poverty levels of benefits despite powerful advocacy for years.
Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect quite a bit on the atrocities of capitalism (and experience it firsthand). It made me think about how horrific it is that this huge scam was being sold since our youth about how this is just how the world is and how it has to be.
Our current factory-model educational system indoctrinates us into capitalism
When I was still in the thick of the education system, I had no idea what capitalism was, and yet I was being indoctrinated into it every single day. The way our traditional public school/private post-secondary education systems are set up, capitalism is embedded into its culture and expectations.
Capitalism is all about exploitation of people to attain their labour for the cheapest possible rate in order to fill the pockets of a select few up the ladder. This system benefits from raising youth who are taught to obey, not ask critical questions, and to focus on creating competition between each other so as to not bring attention to the reason this competition even exists (to deflect attention from systemic inequities toward a hyperfocus on individual ‘imperfections’).
Thus, this system benefits from the educational system widely used today, which remains largely unchanged from the industrial revolution of the 19th century. This factory model educational system brings up youth who are conditioned for capitalism – to be exploited by the rich for their labour. And the twisted part of all of this is that many will not ask questions about it.
In fact, a typical econ class will teach economics as profit = where supply and demand intersect, and there will be no critical thought into questions like, “What are the ethics of profit? Where does this profit go? What disparities exist for the individuals involved?”.
History class was less about history and more about indoctrinating that European imperialism & colonialization (+ associated exploitation) improves the world
Speaking of lack of critical thought in coursework, history is still often taught in a way that hides Europeans’ violent colonialization of Indigenous lands under a vastly positive set of messaging: “expansion”, “collaboration”, and “sharing of resources through trade”. Instead of being honest about the ways in which Indigenous peoples were stripped of their identities, culture, language, rights, freedoms, lives, the list goes on and on, while being exploited, history class focuses on memorizing dates, prime ministers/presidents, and numbers of casualties in wars.
There was much perpetuation of the myth that colonialization (and therefore exploitation) is for the greater good and leads to a better life for all. In my own education, I was never told about the atrocities committed in residential schools. It was wrapped up horrifyingly into “providing a civilized education to the natives” (there is SO much wrong with those words). I learned that the Indian Act of 1876 existed, but not that it was created by colonialists to assimilate Indigenous peoples so that they didn’t have to provide financial support for them. Or that it is hard to ‘just repeal’ because it also forms the structure for local community governance and community life for Indigenous peoples, and its complete removal in its current state would also rid of certain rights that are protected.
And since the Socratic method of teaching is not popular, students indoctrinated into the current didactic method of learning wouldn’t likely think to ask questions. The questions they ask are more related to what will be on the test. Meritocracy. Just how capitalism wants it to be.
“Merit” is falsely considered to be the highest indicator of future success
How often have you heard your guardian(s) and teachers tell you, “If you just keep working hard, you’ll succeed”? There is certainly a semblance of truth to this statement (i.e., I believe it is healthy to focus more on empowerment in putting in effort to change outcomes OVER believing that you have fixed intelligence, abilities, etc. that predetermine all of your outcomes – Dr. Carol Dweck’s fixed vs. growth mindset). However, it skips over quite a few systemic inequities that are quite often not at all under an individual’s control.
In school, “merit” is evaluated through grades. If you get high grades, you’re considered “smart” or “hard working”, and if you get lower grades, you’re considered “dumb” or “lazy”. These are convenient labels for capitalism because they focus on one’s own efforts and do not consider any other systems that affect the person. It becomes easy for each student to blame themselves for not being able to “achieve” high grades when the overwhelming message is that it’s all up to personal effort.
“Privilege” plays a much bigger role in quality of life outcomes than “merit”
In reality, there are systems that make it fundamentally inequitable to achieve “merit” in our current society. In other words, some folks have crushing barriers that others do not. In fact, some folks benefit from the fact that other folks have these crushing barriers; this is one way I would describe “oppression”. These folks who benefit from how systems currently exist have “privilege”. The best definition of privilege that I’ve ever read came from Tiffany Jewell’s “This Book is Anti-Racist” (with a tiny addition for clarity):
Privilege is the benefits you receive due to how close[ly identified] you are to the dominant culture.
The only piece I would add is that these aspects of identity are not earned. In North America, this dominant culture consists of those perpetuated by white, Catholic, upper-middle class, able-bodied, neurotypical, extraverted, heterosexual, and cisgender males. It would take an entire book to unpack that piece by piece, so thank goodness Tiffany Jewell already wrote one! (Seriously, check that out.) For now, the point is that the further you are from those identities, the more oppression you are likely to face from the current dominant systems. The closer you are to those identities, the more privilege you are likely to have, and also the less you are likely to need to even think about the obstacles that those who are less privileged must think about.
This explains why thinking of one’s own privilege can often come with discomfort – it can be difficult to come to terms with the idea that you have certain freedoms and resources that others do not because of factors you cannot control and did not earn. After all, capitalism does a great job of fooling people into the notion that if you have something, it is 100% because you earned it from your own merit. It makes it easier to sell the equally ugly flipside: if you don’t have something, it is 100% because you didn’t put in enough effort/you are “lazy”.
People with lots of privilege tend to be the ones in power, and they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the class divide
Oppression is the use of power to silence, marginalize, or otherwise subordinate one social group or category to empower and/or privilege the oppressor.
Oppression isn’t made of cute little humps you pull your bootstraps over. These forces can be seriously crushing to one’s ability to live an engaged and meaningful life, especially when there are many people with privilege in power who have vested interests in keeping this status quo of oppression.
For example, racism against Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour is perpetuated in North America in order to keep a racial class divide. Communities of predominantly Black folks continue to be pushed through systems with lower socioeconomic resources, poor educational quality, unemployment, and poverty cycle through generations, while at the same time the condition of being poor is criminalized. All of this while down the street, there’s an entire system of predominantly white folks enjoying a much higher quality of life (“Radical Capitalism & Prison Abolition Zine” covers all this in much more detail; one example they use is the Upper East Side of Manhattan vs. East Harlem).
Blaming individual “weaknesses” shifts the blame away from capitalism
Capitalism enjoys this racialized system because it makes a convincing guise that folks who are unemployed (who are largely BIPOC folks) have some kind of natural trait that makes them unemployed (e.g., “lazy”, “irresponsible”, “dangerous”). It makes capitalism look like a fair system for everyone when people attribute unemployment to individual “weaknesses” rather than (correctly) blaming capitalism itself.
All of this to say that getting a 90% on a math test and keeping up those grades for entire school years is much easier for a white boy down the street who has the privilege of having an RESP and whose parents have connections with big corporate companies (or work there already) and never has to think about where to get his next meal…
…than a Black transgender girl with depression who was raised by a single Black mother with bipolar disorder working as a grocery bagger, barely scraping by financially, with a Black father who was walking down the street years ago when he was racially profiled by a policeman and then wrongfully incarcerated.
But under capitalism and under the current educational system, it’s all about your personal “merit” and your personal “effort” or lack thereof. Pardon my language: What The Fuck. It’s so understandable that under this, many folks are struggling with mental health! But until these structures are clearer to you, it’s so easy to blame yourself for ‘just not working hard enough’. That’s certainly what capitalism wants.
If these are new concepts to you, I implore you to re-learn the world around you and take a critical lens to the systems that exist.
In just 3 years of being in the workforce after a lifetime of being an overachieving perfectionist, I’ve learned firsthand about how my mental health is interwoven with capitalism. In the interest of keeping the post to a reasonable length, I’ll reserve these reflections for a later post.
If anything, I hope that you come away from this post with the spirit of thinking critically about the information that you see, the beliefs that you’ve grown up with, and reflecting on your own privileges and how your identities interact with capitalism. It can be uncomfortable; that’s valid! And, it’s important.
I want to leave you with a few of the best resources I’ve come across so far (some I’ve read, some I’ve been recommended) while starting my journey into un-learning capitalism and re-learning the world around me. I’m not an expert, so I personally am not the best resource for answers! There are folks much more qualified and/or personally impacted than I who have valuable insights and contributions to share.
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),
On Racial Capitalism, Oppression, Power, Privilege
Racial Capitalism & Prison Abolition Zine (https://issuu.com/racialcapitalism/docs/racial_capitalism___prison_abolition_lr)
(BOOK) “This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 lessons on how to wake up, take action, and do the work” by Tiffany Jewell (https://amzn.to/3ylxXCV)
(BOOK) “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo (https://amzn.to/389sK6A)
“Why capitalism causes oppression” (https://redflag.org.au/node/5494)
“Indian Act” (https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/indian-act)
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: “By the numbers: Race, gender and the Canadian labour market” (2019) (https://monitormag.ca/shorthand/by-the-numbers-race-gender-and-the-canadian-labour-market-200221160640/index.html)
CBC News: “New race-based unemployment data show higher rates for Black, Arab and South Asian Canadians” (2020) (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/race-based-unemployment-data-pandemic-1.5679127)
Advisor’s Edge: “Black Canadians suffer higher unemployment and lower wages” (2021) (https://www.advisor.ca/news/economic/black-canadians-suffer-higher-unemployment-and-lower-wages/)
On Wealth Inequity – “There are no ethical billionaires”
“Wealth shown to scale” (2021) (https://mkorostoff.github.io/1-pixel-wealth/)
“How Rich is Elon Musk? – Visualization of Extreme Wealth” (2022) (https://engaging-data.com/how-rich-is-elon-musk/)
Side note: Many folks who agree with capitalism and oppose a wealth tax will often say that these billionaires’ assets are not ‘liquidated’ and are tied up in stocks. These folks argue that therefore they do not actually ‘have’ this much money to pay their fair share of taxes or to redistribute toward social programs because liquidating these stocks would mean losing control over their company. I recommend this reddit thread on r/Socialism_101 for some quick reading on challenging this argument (sort by “best”): https://www.reddit.com/r/Socialism_101/comments/m77g9k/what_is_an_argument_against_theyre_not_really/ . Whether you agree with socialism or not, it is good practice to consider and try to understand both sides of an argument. It helps build your confidence in your stance and values.
On Ontario Disability Support Program, Ontario’s social assistance program for folks with serious health problems, many of whom cannot work, period
CBC News: “This woman with disabilities gets only $1,169 a month. She hopes the Ontario election changes that” (2022) (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/odsp-rates-election-issue-1.6433163)
CBC News: “People with disabilities demand hike in income support, give province failing grade” (2021) (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/odsp-clients-call-for-increase-in-income-support-1.6192475)
On Growth vs. Fixed Mindset
“Carol Dweck: A Summary of Growth and Fixed Mindsets” (https://fs.blog/carol-dweck-mindset/)