Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
I’ve long been struck by how so much of right-wing ideology boils down to “I had to suffer, so other people should have to suffer, too.”
One more product of the individualist ideology furiously propagated by promoters of capitalism, although ideas never flow in only one direction. Some of us, faced with injustice, react in a human way (well, in a way in which we wish humans would react) by reacting to a lack of fairness by vowing to do something so that others aren’t so adversely affected.
It is no news flash to note that under capitalism we live in highly competitive societies, encouraging people in countless ways to stomp on others for personal gain, whether on the job or in various aspects of our personal lives. The individualist ideology underlying that encourages those who have reached some measure of success to believe they did it all on their own. All the more so is that the case in the business world, where entrepreneurs are supposed to have single-handedly built successful enterprises.
To be sure, individual talent does play a role; the point here isn’t to deny that individuals can, and do, create. But your average society has educational systems, infrastructure and social programs. Success certainly rests on these social goods, social goods often, dare we say, supplied by the very governments that individualist, capitalist ideology insists we recoil from in horror. The successful capitalist has tapped into those social goods, even before we get to the government subsidies and other goodies handed out to larger corporations.
It is a small step to extend this celebration of individuality, conveniently shorn of its social underpinning, to a climb up a corporate ladder or success in attaining and retaining a stable job with a reasonable wage. “I worked hard to be here,” the right-winger says. In many cases, that is surely so. But did that person truly do it all on his or her effort, outside of external factors? Surely not. More likely than not, that person grew up in a locality with a strong school system and could acquire a solid education. Perhaps that person is White, and thus didn’t face the multifaceted discrimination a Black, Latinx or Indigenous person would have.
The mere fact of being born in an advanced capitalist country — a country whose citizens benefit from imperialism and the ability to take and use a disproportionate share of the world’s resources — gave the right-winger an enormous advantage over a similarly intelligent or hard-working person living in a poor location in the Global South. Those imbued with individualist ideology tend not to contemplate their various advantages, the list of which we have not here exhausted.
None of us can say we did it all on our own, including those who did indeed work hard to reach a level of personal success in their chosen career or field of endeavor. “I had to suffer, so other people should have to suffer, too” simply means an uncritical acceptance of inequality; a resignation to capitalist ideology that asserts that the massive exploitation it defends is the natural state of the world and the world can never be different.
That, of course, is precisely what capitalist ideologists would like us to believe.
Sadly, it is what so many people, particularly in advanced capitalist countries, do believe.
Competition is the engine of any capitalist economy. The destructiveness of that relentless competition — a competition that can’t be turned off or ignored by any capitalist — is all around us. Desperate poverty, mass incarceration, precarity in employment, the mass movement of production to places with ever lower wages and regulations, the scramble for survival even for those with employment, gentrification, the corporate takeover of social spaces and cultures, the violence inflicted on those left out, the violence inflicted on the Global South. That is what capitalist competition bring us. Does the world really have to be this way?
As always, it is best not to see capitalism in moral terms. I don’t mean to say that capitalism and greed aren’t immoral; they are. But the capitalist’s greed and willingness to exploit fellow human beings for the sake of personal enrichment isn’t simply a matter of deficiencies in the capitalist’s personality, it is a matter of opportunity — more specifically, what behaviors are rewarded. Capitalism is a system of impersonal competition. The capitalist must successfully survive that competition to remain in business. Expand or die — and financiers are there to enforce that capitalist imperative on any industrialist who doesn’t act sufficiently ruthless. The extraordinary reliance on markets results in competition overriding other considerations — and thus a willingness to stomp on others is what is rewarded. The entire system reinforces that.
If we had a different type of economy — whether we call that socialism, economic democracy or some other term — then different aspects of the human personality would rise to the fore, and the rewards would go to those who can cooperate and operate within a cooperative economy designed for human need instead of private profit. “I had to suffer” might still be heard, but social clues would instead ask us to ameliorate that condition for others instead of demanding more suffering.