A Wonderfully Complex Set of Illusions

anti-capitalist-protestFor Good Friday: Rev. Lynice Pinkard.
From her legendary 2014 interview with The Sun Magazine.

There is a seductive beauty in the idea that everyone has equal economic opportunity under capitalism. First, it allows the wealthy and powerful, the owning class, to feel justified in their position. They can believe their privilege is based on their own hard work, or the hard work of their ancestors. Second, just enough of the poorest are desperate enough to think that, despite all evidence, they can become rich. Most poor people don’t believe this, but they also don’t have enough resources or popular support to bring about real change, or else they are convinced that they are indeed unworthy and sometimes even work toward their own destruction. Third, the so-called middle class is led to dream of becoming rich and to fear the encroachment of the poor.

It’s a wonderfully complex set of illusions. The fact is that economic growth — the goal of capitalism — is always followed by an increase in the disparity between rich and poor and a withering of the middle class. The United States has almost the highest rate of poverty among the industrialized Western nations. Our government provides little or no safety net for those who have fallen through the cracks of the system. Charities and welfare programs established to help the unfortunate do not have the power or resources to lift people out of poverty, and they never will. Meanwhile the government conjures the illusion of opportunity while keeping upward class mobility to a minimum, and the rich get richer. Wealth carries not only purchasing power but also social and political power. It takes a large amount of wealth to alter the political process, and until you and I reach that highest level, our efforts are easily negated by those who have the most money.

Capitalism abhors the equitable distribution of wealth. Any social program that could improve the economic standing of a significant number of people on the bottom is doomed. Low-income communities are provided with the worst educational resources. Even if the poor were able to surmount all challenges, they would only end up changing places with those above them. The middle class would be squeezed downward, ensuring that the number of poor people would stay the same, if not increase. Social programs can soothe immediate suffering, but they will never achieve social justice, no matter how well funded they are. Individuals can change their class positions, and the quality of life for those at the bottom may be slightly improved, but economic justice will remain elusive. Only a change in the economic system will remedy this.

… As a culture we are in a nosedive toward death, and to interrupt it, we must opt out of the capitalist systems that are killing us and decimating the planet. Although we might criticize systems and bemoan their negative effects, we do not often focus on the degree to which we rely upon them. We balk at any course of action that truly threatens the status quo, because a confrontation with the system is going to cost us our comforts and our reputation and possibly our lives. But we have to stop shopping at the bargain counter of the American company store, where we exchange substance for more security, more status, more wealth, and more power. It is nearly impossible to be a prophet with a wallet full of credit cards. Resistance to the system means social death and loss of identity, but it is also a struggle for life. It is not the futile hope for a better day, the self-indulgent staking out of a political position, or a reckless descent into disorder. It is self-determination with integrity. It is the assertion of life without apology. It is the willingness to defend what we love with our lives.

In effect, this acceptance of the end of our lives as we have known them enables us to move away from another kind of death — the social, political, and economic conditions that leech the meaning from life, devastate relationships, and lead us to despair. We need to build interdependent communities that trust people over money and collectivize both risk and security. We need to switch from putting our faith in money to putting our faith in each other.

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