Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change

Photo Source Torsten Scholz | CC BY 2.0

The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s novelization of the plight of the working class in the early 20th century, ripples with gruesome tales of the exploitation of immigrants in Chicago’s meatpacking district. In half-Dickensian, half-Dantean factories where the daily fare for millions is processed, Jurgis, a Lithuanian immigrant, arrives bereft, owning little more than an unshakable faith in the American Dream. He discovers a world of infinite promise, dangled by con men before him, his for the taking if only he will labor tirelessly on behalf of his family.

This he does, in the slaughterhouses and fertilizer plants of the Windy City, observing hellish working conditions, needless factory death, livelihood-crushing injuries, cruelties by bosses, indifference by owners, and intraclass competition among workers. His family falls apart, most dying tragically unnecessary deaths, at the workplace, in the mean streets, on the birthing bed. An infernal chain of events leaves Jurgis effectively destitute, before he stumbles into a kind of religious revival, except the Billy Sunday avatar in the pulpit is preaching socialism. Jurgis marvels at the almost spiritual intoxication of the man’s rhetoric. The ‘preacher’ mouths all of the adages and epithets that commonfolk had long hoped to realize–social justice, fairness, helping one another, mutualism and community.

After a week of such sermons, Jurgis experiences a kind of revelation, his hopes rejuvenated, his economic prospects revived, his connection to family rediscovered. The curtains fall with the prospect of political change. While the first three quarters of the novel read like a bill of indictments leveled against capitalism, the final quarter reads like a breathless religious tract, penned by a saintly eremite.

The Continuity Of Change

Written more than a century ago, the grandly depicted socialist future has yet to materialize. Instead, the dynamics of capitalist exploitation continue to resonate today. The geographies and the victims, the industries and the means of production, may be different, but the underlying kinetics of accumulation by dispossession remain untouched. Factories collapse in distant Bangladesh garment districts. Depressed workers leap to their deaths from deadbolt Foxconn factories. Unions are undermined and barred, their champions subjected to violent repression. Civil wars rage along the mining towns of the Congo, the ‘natives’ scrambling to profit from the export of ugly metallic minerals craved by western mobile conglomerates. Even though a century of reformism have proven futile, we continue to clamor for tweaks to the machinery of global conquest. A machine designed to enrich elites but that claims to act on behalf of the huddled masses, either as a ‘civilising’ mission or a ‘humanitarian’ responsibility to protect. The rhetorical deceits evolve, but the objectives retain their crude character. Here are a few of the more consistent markers, or de facto laws, of super-charged capitalism to look for:

The State Fights To Open New Markets: A falling rate of profit and the specter of competition keeps capital clamoring for fresh sources of investment and profitability. When the once-prosperous domestic market is exhausted and reduced to debt peonage, the state must open markets abroad by force or fraud. Extravagant and wanton use of illegal unilateral sanctions have sliced up to six percent off Russian GDP, harming the population and ironically strengthening the Kremlin. Nicaragua, having only just emerged from decades of Contra wars, are againin the crosshairs of American destabilization campaigns. Venezuela’s hybrid economy is staggering beneath pressures exerted in the streets and in the markets by targeted NED funding of anti-democratic forces. Plan Colombia has helped turn that country into a haven for anti-labor terrorism. The Iranian state finds itself enmeshed in a tangle of sanctions and an implacably imperialist ogre threatening to reinstall a regime of dynastic horrors, as it did some generations ago. The $700 billion-dollar National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will ensure that our campaigns of destruction across the Middle East and Africa continue unabated, while the lucrative flow of weapons into Pentagon warehouses and foreign bunkers continues apace. From sanctions to ABMs, the forging of new markets is done in the name of national security domestically, and national liberation abroad.

Corporations Boost Profits Through Chicanery & Swindle: As the state fights on behalf of multinational capital, the privileged corporations being served by the corporate state are themselves behaving no better than in the past. In a stagnant economy of consumers with empty pockets, multinationals are goosing their valuations with massive stock buybacks that limit supply and boost prices. They’re also scrambling to increase profits by illicit means, as always. Boeing evidently withheld important flight-control feature that analysts think may have contributed to a Lion Air jet crash last month in Indonesia. A Deutsche Bank whistleblower has implicated his former firm in a $150B money laundering scandal. This follows in the wake of numberless TBTF scandals like the London whale scheme at JP Morgan and the Libor rate swindle at Barclays, UBS, and other banks. The bankers tend to walk scot-free, as they did after the scandal of the 2008 global economic meltdown. A metastasizing pile of lawsuits continues to build against Bayer allege the Roundup weed killer, once thought to be a miraculous boon to farmers, causes cancer in humans. Big Pharma is ‘discovering’ new medical conditions on what seems like a weekly basis and then rushing an antidote drug into the market. When shareholders profit, corporate media declares it good for the economy, even though few if any of the benefits of the derivative economy, for instance, accrue to Main Street.

The ‘Free Market’ Is Free For Capital, Not Labor: As inequality grows, some tireless and agitated analysts point out the ludicrous ways in which the euphemistically named “free market” is shaped in favor of elite capital, for instance in the highly lucrative intellectual property (IP) domain. Economist Dean Baker continues to print harangues that express his disbelief that no mainstream economists talk about the arbitrary IP laws that funnel immense profits to first-to-market multinationals at the expense of the broader public, particularly the poor and sickly debt serfs that scramble to afford their must-have prescriptions. Rather than witnessing vigorous left-wing debate about the need to tax corporations and reshape IP law, we watch liberals fawn over the confessedly “free market guy” Barack Obama, who now stumps for Congressional candidates in narcissistic monologues that are admixtures of triumphalism and whitewashing. Liberals were so utterly hoodwinked by Obama’s progressive rhetoric that they briefly touted Dean Baker as a leading candidate to join Obama’s cabinet. This farcical notion collapsed once Obama turned to Goldman Sachs and friends to staff his most important economic posts, while dodging the thorny issue of prosecuting Wall Street for its rigged market crimes. The unquestioned assumption of market supremacy is a stone-carved credo of both parties.

Inequality Increases: This is partly why just three individuals possesses more wealth than the bottom half of the U.S. population. The mostly white richest 400 persons on Forbes 400 have as much or more wealth than 16 million African-American households and five million Latino households, combined. Some $26 trillion dollars provided to the TBTF banks since the mortgage meltdown in perhaps the largest transfer of wealth in human history. For their part, the population got austerity. As Noam Chomsky used to remark, it’s always socialism for the rich and market discipline for the rest. Debt is a marker of inequality. We live beneath an Everest of debt. A trillion dollars in credit card debt. A trillion in auto loan debt. A trillion in student loan debt. And many more trillions in mortgage debt. Some $13 trillion in total. Our government has taken our taxes, spent them frivolously on war, and piled up some $21 trillion in debt of its own, which of course it would slough off on the people if asked. The increase in global debt, which has doubled since the crash, will appear as profit in the ledgers of the business community, or the global one percent–meaning that the creation of debt for consumers is actually the creation of wealth for shareholders. This is what Harvey calls, “accumulation by dispossession”. The problem, of course, is that the minority of capital takes the majority of surplus value for itself, leaving the majority of labor with less to spend into the economy. A few people with a lot of money will always spend less than a lot of people with a little money, which is why inequality harms economic growth, perpetuating itself.

The Futility of Reformism: The desires and demands of the disenfranchised are usually diametrically opposed to the interests of capital. Throngs of marchers regularly call for living wages, Medicare for All, free college, jobs and job security, cutting bloated military budgets, and an end to the mass incarceration prison project. As if either party would countenance of these demands given they are thoroughly beholden to profiteering transnationals. Why would politicians who fill their troughs with bribes from the insurance, defense, pharmaceutical, academic, and carceral industries adopt policies that despoiled the profiteering of their donors? It would be career suicide. This is why we see progressive candidates stump for Medicare for All, given its immense popularity, only to retreat behind the barricade of the Affordable Care Act. It’s why they clamor about better educationand protection for immigrants, but deliver neither.

The Duopoly Hides Economic Reality: Instead, the political class creates scapegoats to disguise our economic reality and the causes that create it. The reality is that the duopoly has given us 50 years of a brutal neoliberalism of stagnant wages, declining purchasing power, and price inflation; a massive economic collapse in 2008; a bailout for the instigators of the crash; and austerity for the victims. All to ensure that any economic benefits flow upward to the one percent. As described by social geographer David Harvey, neoliberalism is a class project of economic elites to restore their wealth and power in the wake of the high-tax post-war era. A large segment of the population, here and abroad, fed up with the political insiders that enabled this trend, have voted for outsiders who promise law, order, and prosperity. The outsiders will deliver order in the form of militarized domestic security, surveillance, and censorship. They will print money to increase consumer debt and thereby pacify and control the populace. And the increase in global debt, which has doubled since the crash, will appear as profit in the ledgers of the business community, or the global one percent–meaning that the creation of debt for consumers is actually the creation of wealth for shareholders. They will absolve themselves of blame for the slipshod economy by blaming immigrants and other countries. The problem, of course, is that the minority of capital takes the majority of surplus value for itself, leaving the majority of labor with less to spend into the economy. As some anonymous poster noted, a few people with a lot of money will always spend less than a lot of people with a little money, which is why inequality harms economic growth.

Duopoly Divides Working Class: All of this is swept aside by the Democrats and Republicans as they appeal to their antithetical constituencies for support. The Republicans have been reduced to a party of white supremacists that can no longer win with numbers at the ballot box. It must gerrymander districts and purge voter rolls to even create the possibility of triumph. The Democrats, for their part, continue the long and winding fraud of identity politics, by which they abandoned the working class, petitioned corporate capital to be their new patrons, while promising to still win over liberal voting blocs with rhetorical grandstanding about women, people of color, and the poor. They fabricate faux progressive candidates drawn from pools of liberal women and nonwhites, as if gender and ethnicity were in themselves sufficient reasons for vote for a candidate. In this way, the Democrats can continue to parade their liberal bona fides while pocketing enormous sums from anti-liberal corporate patrons. (The intellectual rationale that unites liberalism and capitalism is simple: capital doesn’t care what nationality you are, or what color or gender you are, or what your sexual preference is. It wants to open your wallet regardless. We should all have the equal right to consume.)

The Ruling Class Unites: Not only does the duopoly erect facades of inclusion to dupe half-educated liberals, the Russiagate distraction has led the Democrats to brush aside a once cynical attitude toward the intelligence community. We no longer hear Matt Damon rattling off the heaping reasons he shouldn’t work for the NSA; instead we find our peers starry eyed at the pious cant of intelligence gray hairs, who have resettled their gravitas in the studios of the mainstream media, where they graze on the frazzled nerves of a rapt populace. They rail about treason and security clearances, democracy and institutional integrity. But what’s the integrity of a Senate in which most senators are millionaires and 20 percent of the ‘represented’ population controls 60 percent of the votes? Rather than acknowledge the discredited position of the CIA, FBI, NSA and the rest, Democrats have embraced them in a mutually beneficial campaign against the president. Tonkin Bay, yellow cake uranium, WMDs, Syrian chemical attacks, the Contras, and numberless other intelligence ruses are dismissed as the Congressional laity joins arms with the deep state beneath the stars and stripes. The ruling class will always defend its interests against the working class and pause any of the inter-class squabbles that tend to dominate media coverage.

We Lack A Systemic Critique

This narrative misdirection on the part of our two capitalist parties leads the people to obsess on the differences between the two pro-capitalist parties to the exclusion of non-capitalist alternatives. Rather than a class critique of capitalism, we hang onto the promises of a political class that has historically betrayed its populist constituencies time and again. It is this mass lack of understanding that stalls our initiative for system change. That and our debt. The ideological barrier on one hand, the material on the other. As long as the spigot of domestic propaganda and the trough of credit remain open, the revolutionary spirit of a disenfranchised populace will remain subjugated to the moist-eyed hand-wringing of American hopers, sticking their latest blue wave placards in the sandy turf of their over-mortgaged homes.

Which brings us back to the beleaguered Jurgis. Listening to those fiery lectures on socialism, the protagonist of the The Jungle finally achieves a bird’s eye view of his social circumstances: many of the disparate injustices of his life converge under the banner of capitalist exploitation. It seems this kind of unifying narrative is what Americans need. A broad historical perspective on the proclivities of capitalism would render moot much of the reformist babble about incremental gains and regulatory control and decorum in the White House. We would understand that the monopoly capitalist government we live under does what monopoly capitalist governments do: cut regulations to allow capital to further exploit labor; cut taxes to enable the rich to hoard the subsequent profits; and spend what taxes remain from the masses on wars to loot foreign nations of their wealth for the ongoing enrichment of the one percent. That in addition to printing money to artificially inflate the margins of Wall Street blue-chips. The astronomical profits are observed on stock indices, disbursed in dividends, locked in opaque funds, celebrated in the business press, and lavishly paraded in places like Cannes and Monaco and Manhattan. The corporate elites will still profess their liberal bona fides with ribbon-cutting ceremonies, ‘corporate responsibility’ events, and other agitprop of capitalist whitewashing. We know that for capital, enough is never enough; but we have yet to see from workers, how much is too much.


Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at