How We Internalized Capitalism: A Look Into The Psyche of The American Worker

Author: Luiza Calvacante (Leftist)

Seven months ago on a chilly Sunday in late April, Washington’s State Capitol building was swarming with Right-Wing protestors demonstrating anti-lockdown sentiments. The protest brought together fiscal conservatives and civil libertarians in a flurry of star-spangled paraphernalia, brazen, maskless faces, and more than a few picket signs reading, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Though seeming all too out of place as the United States reached record high case rates and hospitals throughout the country remained overwhelmed, the protest was simply another rendition of a performance spreading across the nation: expressive sentiments from working-class conservative-fringe groups who demanded a return to work and reopening of the economy at what looked like any cost. 

Before jumping to outright moral condemnation of the protesters, it’s important to examine exactly what and who is driving what’s going on. This is a manifestation of internalized capitalism: a phenomenon that functions similarly to internalized homophobia or internalized racism but tends to be much more difficult to discern because of how recently the term started making its rounds in academic, economic, and social circles. 

Despite the majority of Americans still expressing concern over reopening the economy, the protests began to gain traction and pop up everywhere from Michigan to California. They were inundated with a self-sacrificial brand of economic patriotism that seemed to synonymize the stability of an economic system with national identity and “freedom,” which wasn’t organic by any means.

A month earlier in late march, conservative politicians and business groups began to vocally support policy that would get Americans back to work as soon as possible and conservative television pundits were quick to get on board, with Glenn Beck and Dan Patrick going as far as to suggest older Americans would readily risk their lives going back to work to save the economy according to Politico. Bear in mind that this claim lacked evidence and was proposed by two people with multi-million dollar net worths who are substantially removed from the working class. 

A few weeks later President Trump received a list of 100 possible advisors on reopening policy- yet they were all business executives. After all of this, the demonstrations truly began to gain force. Facing not only health risks but legal action, congregations by the thousands protesting public health measures still sounds bizarre. Less so, however, when you turn to the neoliberal pundits that emboldened protestors because of their financial interests, and conservative advocacy groups (Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks) who as the Guardian notes, paid for polling that undercut COVID-19 research and tapped their networks to show up in masse. With clear intervention from those with their own financial interests it’s hard to not see these protests as a manifestation of blatant and coercive internalized capitalism.

The idea of intermingling business and politics to sway the working class into internalizing an economic system isn’t new. American corporate lobbying within a capitalist system ensures that policy and business interests are symbiotic and tends to set the stage precisely for that. 

Succinctly, domestic capitalism is a lawful free market system that positions business and corporate interests as primary drivers. Under modern American capitalism, corporations are forced to maximize productivity to beat out competitors while workers are forced to produce to survive.  According to an analysis of total productivity data from the Economic Policy Institute, hourly compensation is up +114.7% since 1948 while the productivity needed to earn that hourly wage is up +246.3% causing a 131% gap in the productivity and hourly compensation of the average American worker in 2017 alone. 

This didn’t happen overnight, in fact, the relationship between work and compensation was congruent until the 1970s, when the gap started. The drop off is exactly contemporaneous with the conception and subsequent rise of neoliberalism, the idea that states should be primarily concerned with absolute gains and not relative gains to other states, in the 1960s-1970s. In contrast, compensation and labor congruence is exactly contemporaneous with lauded social justice and economic egalitarianism of the 1950s-1960s. Capitalism is, as we have known it for the last 30 years, a neoliberal neoliberal hegemony where the rich get richer while the working class gets poorer, terrified, and survivalist.

In a 2016 essay for the Economist defending free trade and innovation, President Obama wrote, “It is important to remember that capitalism has been the greatest driver of prosperity and opportunity the world has ever seen.” Capitalism and consumerism are solutes to America’s struggle. The rhetoric that anyone has the ability to  become the next Silicon Valley CEO exploiting workers in Bangladesh because of late century IMF loans and neoliberal policies that not only allow but encourage them to do so, have become as synonymous with patriotism as the pledge of allegiance. The mantra heard time and time again that anyone can succeed with the right amount of effort. American capitalism teaches us that our worth comes from productivity and our freedom, liberty, and pursuit of happiness rely on the positive fluctuations of the Dow Jones. 

Internalizing capitalism is the voice in your head that tells you to keep working even when you’re burnt out and the guilt that colors every period of rest you have. Internalized capitalism looks like working out of fear of what will happen if you don’t. It looks like calling self-sacrifice “economic patriotism” because you’ve internalized the labor needs of corporations and synonymized consumerism and late-stage capitalism with America itself. The phenomenon isn’t perplexing or unexpected- its a sign that capitalism is working just as intended. 

A Way Forward

The most effective way to dismantle internalized capitalism would be to systemically and radically re-construct our current economic system. Revolution may not be realistic but solidarity economy, a term coined by Latin American critical theorist Luis Razeto, has contemporary influence in the United States that nearly every worker can engage in. More of a way to identify transformative monetary practices than a framework of policy (though it can take this form- see the proposed Green New Deal), solidarity economy puts people before profit through egalitarianism, decolonization, race-class cognizance sustainability, and pluralism. This can look like fair trade, self-help organizations, co-operatives, labor unions, trade unions, derivatives of the free software movement, solidarity lending, and gift economies. 

Unionizing is perhaps the most effective action workers can take. Unions not only increase benefits and wages, help dismantle the influence of corporations in law-making, and encourage political participation; they also specifically benefit people of color. Starting a democratically owned worker cooperative or getting involved in an existing one is another way to disengage from capitalist practices while building community wealth and partnership. 

Individually, the working class must begin to find legitimacy, purpose, and community outside of labor. Dismantling the internalization of capitalism can happen on a personal level as much as it can happen on a systemic level. Setting as many boundaries as possible around working hours, volunteering, resting, affirming worth despite nonproductivity, and spending time away from consumerism either alone or with loved ones are all meaningful and radical ways to move forward.

To argue against internalized capitalism is arduous because the only valid maxims appear to be monetary and transactional. Workers who internalize capitalism are not creating an immense financial loss or driving up debt, they are better workers in this economic system because of how they internalize it. To truly argue against internalized capitalism then, is to argue against an economic system that in current practice forces a cost-benefit analysis between production and producer. To argue against internalized capitalism is to demand another way out, a way that prioritizes the life of a human being and not the work they produce.

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